Time to Find Your Zen Center… Again

Meaning Of Life.jpgThere is this misguided idea in the world that, once someone becomes a Zen Master, they’ve reached a destination where they no longer have to work at anything. It should all be relatively easy.

When I say “Zen Master,” I’m talking about becoming your best at whatever it is that you might do, and then being at peace with yourself and your own abilities.

Too often, we may compare ourselves to others. They have nicer gear, or they can play something faster, or they’ve sold more records, or whatever the case may be.

Coming to terms with who and where you are should not be a Pollyanna perspective, where maybe you really are not all that good, but you want to convince yourself that you are. Instead, this is about coming to terms with it all while working to improve.

This is often necessary because of your own self-perspective.

INTERNAL FORCES
For example, I have been studying guitar for a while now. Compared to how I was when I started playing, I have never been a better guitar player. However, in my own mind, I have also never been a worse guitar player.

The more I learn, the more I realize I do not know.

There is no destination where I will sit back and declare that I’ve “made it.”

My guitar mentor seems to be in the same position. He has been studying and playing for over 50 years. I honestly love everything that he’s ever recorded. And yet, he does not like ANYTHING that he has ever recorded.

This is because he writes a piece, records it, and continues to improve. By the time it’s mixed and released, he’s advanced beyond the point where he was when he wrote and recorded the piece. It’s old news, and it’s his old self.

EXTERNAL FORCES
This could be the person who thinks your guitar sucks, which is hilarious. But it could also be that person who asserts that you are no good at what you do because you can’t do X, with “X” being a parlor trick on the instrument.

For guitar, it could be playing fast, sweep picking, or general “shredding.”

All of it sounds stupid. But do not underestimate the power of it when someone says something like this, either to you or to someone else. It seeps into the subconscious. People who talk this way, or who treat music like a “who is the best” contest should be avoided.

FALSE SUMMITS OF ACHIEVEMENT
I used to think this way, and it became a disappointment. The idea here is that, once I can play that new riff, or once I can do X on my instrument, then I will have arrived. I will be a better player.

So I sit with the riff, the rudiment, the passage, or whatever the case may be, and I work on it until I achieve. Suddenly, I can now play this magical thing that I had once only dreamed of playing.

After that, I feel no better. The riff or rudiment has lots all of its magic. I can play it, so it’s no longer special. Lots of people can play it.

This issue can manifest in other ways. Once I get THIS guitar, or THOSE drums, or THAT setup, then I will suddenly have arrived. Once again, as the story goes, the gear is acquired, and nothing has changed.

Once my band gets signed, we’ll have made it!

Same thought, same outcome. Same false summit of achievement.

Yea, but once I sell one million copies of my album, I’ll…

…save it. Same issue, same idea. Same outcome.

OTHER FALSE MEASURES OF SUCCESS
But if shredding, and big record sales, and being a rock star, and expensive gear are not measures of success, then what are real measures of success?

In order to understand this, one must first understand why these measures will fail you.

I’ve already covered shredding and acquiring new skills, and why that does not work. Still, it has something in common with the other things noted above.

Record sales are nice, and it’s cool to have a number one. Much like being a rock star, it is fleeting. The more time passes by, the less people are impressed with it.

Money is also something that comes and goes. It’s an artificial concept, where a dollar is worth a dollar simply because we all agree that it’s worth a dollar, as the government asserts that it is worth a dollar.

REAL MEASURES OF SUCCESS
These measures are going to sound simple and unimpressive, because they are just that. These measures are not meant to impress anyone, and only serve as a tool for your own psychological health and safety.

Taking Steps: Are you taking steps in the right direction? Are you practicing every day? Have you noticed some results here and there? Include everything that is about your music-related goals. If you are moving forward, then you are succeeding.

Learning: Are you learning something new today? It can be a rudiment, a riff, a scale, or other music tools. It can also be learning more about your instrument, or listening to someone else and getting a spark of an idea of your own. If you are learning, then you are succeeding.

Positivity: Are you remaining positive about your lessons, your music, and your life’s ventures? This can be the most difficult, because people and circumstances can bring us down easily.

HOW TO FIND YOUR ZEN CENTER
It’s all about inventory. My music goals for today are to practice my guitar lessons, perform some luthier work on a few of my guitars, and record some new ideas.

At the end of the day, I can perform an inventory check. Did I do all of these things? If so, then I am making progress.

Of course, you may sometimes have to make allowances. Last Thursday, I had lots of music-related goals, and yet I could not achieve any of them because I had to get a tooth extracted. Sometimes life happens, and you have to give yourself a break. It also meant that I had to work just a little bit harder the next day.

Remember that this must be a daily occurrence. You should be practicing every day. At the end of every day, do your inventory.

IN THE END
Sometimes, the words of others can be positive and encouraging. Other times, they can be negative and cause harm. Daily work, with daily practice and daily inventories, is essential to maintain your Zen Center.

More important than what others say to you, is what you say to yourself. Be kind, be positive, and be honest. If you really are bad at your instrument, then figure out why and fix it. Either that, or you can quit and move on to other things. It depends on how important music is to you.

But if your self-perception gets skewed, then it’s best to acknowledge your behaviors and make adjustments, if necessary.

If adjustments are not necessary, and you’re doing fine, then be happy that you’ve found your Zen Center. You can sleep with the confidence that you will find this center tomorrow, by working on your goals and making a note of it.

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Hard Work and Re-Inventing Myself, For Myself

Dan Baby Drum Trash Can 2px - Spring 1966
Trash can drumming: Spring of 1966

Music has always played a major role in my life. I started showing an interest in drumming at around 18 months. In grade school, I played trumpet and later switched to drums when I moved to a new school that had school-owned drums. I bought a guitar with my lunch money and painfully taught myself.

And since we did not have a piano at home, I would leave a window unlocked in the school band room so that I could break in after-hours and teach myself piano, as my flashlight shone upon the keyboard.

That was just a sample of my dedication.

I marched in State Fair the summer after graduation, before going to college. After all of the state competitions and various bands in school, I ventured to LA in 1986 to become a pro musician. Drumming in a rock band was what I had wanted to do since I was old enough to speak the words.

1987 Home
On my own: My first apartment, and finally, my own drums [1987].
For a while, I did not even own any instruments. I’d still get gigs, by using drums at rehearsal halls. For gigs, I would rent drums from the band before or after us, giving them my pay. Later, I would ask the club owner if I could sweep floors for a few bucks or  a sandwich.

 

I relied on the kindness of others, which did not always work out. Sometimes I was homeless and would have to sleep behind dumpsters.

On the toughest of nights, I would be sleeping behind a dumpster, crying myself to sleep because I was hungry and the pain was unbearable. People who are not driven do not put themselves through this.

I was in a strange city that was not welcoming, two thousand miles from what used to be “home.” That was the power of the pull my dreams had.

I had prepared for my entire life to do this. I took every chance I could. I worked hard. I struggled and made things happen. After giving it my all, I would push to give a bit more.

steel panther.jpg
The expectations of 80s rock stars were so bad that making fun of it is now big business.

I almost got signed once. For every band in which I played, there were dozens of bands that rejected me, for reasons that had nothing to do with music.

 

I didn’t have the right “look,” which was often times things like not having “metal hair,” or not having a buff physique.

These attributes eventually became more important than the music itself, which had become generic, homogenized, and lame. There was nothing rebellious or driving about it.

In order to survive, I adapted my outlook.

My original goal was to make a living with music. I didn’t need fame, and had no interest in being a rock star. I just wanted to make music.

Adapting meant joining the work force, which did not really pay all that well. I was working 40 hours per week, my roommate was working 40 hours per week as well. We had nothing, and sometimes found ourselves being so hungry that we’d to go McDonald’s to eat out of trash cans. Other times, we’d ask for ketchup packets and take it home.

ADDING INSULT TO INJURY
On occasion, I would tell my story to someone who claimed to be interested. The most common responses that I got were upsetting, as well as insulting. When they said these things, they did not realize that they were declaring me a loser to my face. With most other scenarios, this would never happen. Somehow, when discussing music career pursuits, it’s a different story.

“Obviously, you did not try hard enough.” My experience tells a different story. There’s really not much else that I can add to this, beyond what I’ve already written.

“You weren’t good enough.” I actually did believe this for a while, until I met other incredible musicians who also did not get anywhere in the music business, or who got ripped off, exploited, or unceremoniously dumped into the cultural garbage bin.

Today, many of the acts that are a big deal in the industry involve those who have no musical talent, which is another discussion.

“You’re making excuses.” This usually comes from people who buy into the junk psychology that self-help motivational speakers spew out. “If you work hard enough, then you can achieve anything.” What this phrase does not tell you is that it is very possible to work really hard and then NOT get anywhere.

I could point to the vast array of great musicians who have also gotten nowhere, as well as those who were once celebrated and are now forgotten. To get ridiculous about it, I could ask how well Beethoven or Vivaldi are selling these days.

But you can also look to other industries. A former co-worker started a restaurant with his husband in West Hollywood about ten years ago. We would cross paths from time to time, and he would talk about how difficult it was.

He had no idea how hard it would be to get a restaurant off the ground. And I know how much passion he puts into his work, because we worked together for a few years.

Close to 60% of restaurants fail within their first year. The popular sentiment is that 90-95% fail. 60% is the correction in publications, so I’m putting my bet on it being somewhere between these two numbers.

A WORD ON FAILURE
Of course, I did fail in some instances. There were some auditions where I did not live up to expectations. No excuses there! In fact, I am still very capable of failing today, and I expect that I will be failing a lot more in the future.

The point is to do it, and to find out.

Putting all of the blame on other things, other people, or situations, would be unreasonable, unrealistic, and immature. While I accepted my failures and learned from them, I also had to accept the hard reality of the overall situation.

ACCEPTING REALITY
Hindsight is 20/20 in this case. MTV had changed what people expected in music. It is romantic to think that if I had started my pursuits ten years earlier [were I born ten years earlier], that I would have had a better time of it. However, reading about musicians from the late 60s and early 70s has me convinced that this would probably not have been the case.

Making excuses involves complaining or being down about it. That’s not what I’m doing here, in case anyone is not getting my point. I wouldn’t blame you for not getting it, because you cannot see me while I’m writing, and cannot hear my voice.

I’m not complaining. I’m accepting the reality of the situation.

If I had to find one thing to complain about, it’s the people who tell me to my face that I didn’t work hard enough, or that I didn’t want it enough. Their ignorance of the big picture is staggering, which is why their negativity does not stick with me. I forgive them, for they know not of which they speak.

WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LIMES
This is when you take those limes and search for some tequila. That is exactly what I did, after one band rejected me, citing that I “looked too much like Pee-Wee Herman.”

IMG_0250I then spent six months studying the character, learning the voice, mannerisms, and behaviors. I learned to think like the characters so that I could improvise. I learned magic tricks and made up games. And with that, I started working for myself as a professional Pee-Wee Herman impersonator.

Like most other entertainment ventures, it was a seasonal thing. Nobody would be hiring me around Christmas. But when spring and summer birthdays were happening, I was in demand.

I got so popular that a business used a photo of me in their pizza shop, which was posted in a story in The Israeli Shelanu, with a caption that roughly translates to “Pee-Wee loves Picasso Pizza.”

This resulted in my receiving an angry call from his lawyers. That’s how you know when you’ve made a name for yourself. I let them know that I was there for a party, I had no idea what they were doing, and I did not read that paper. Still, they gave me a big list of things that I was not allowed to do.

peewee-shelanu.jpg
I see why Mr. Reubens’ lawyers were not happy about this. I had no idea this was happening.

Their list would turn out to be rather ironic, because my business came to a crashing halt due to the scandal, where Mr. Reubens was caught masturbating in an adult movie theatre. Really, what do they expect people do in these venues? But I digress.

After this happened, I called his lawyers back, and let them know that I was put out of business by their client. It was a brief call. I closed with, “Maybe you should have given your own client a list, too.”

The business died, and it was not because I was not working hard. In this case, I worked very hard, and got some reward, for a little bit. Sometimes things sort of work out.

A RETURN TO MUSIC
After that went away, I returned to music as a songwriter. I had co-written a musical in 1987, which is still in production today [2018], so why not?

Viewing myself not as a star, but as a support player, I found a singer and wrote an album for her. Below is a clip of us having our first run-through of the flagship song from that album. Half-way through the two-minute clip, the audio switches from first-run demo to finished product.

This did not get anywhere, even though we had incredible financial backing. Ultimately, the singer ran off with the master tapes, returning to The Philippines. Lesson learned. At least it didn’t fail because I did not work hard.

I did get some solid studio experience from it, working with a great producer and solid studio musicians. There is always something to learn in the studio, even if you’ve done it before. The experience was not a total loss. More about that idea later.

Sosband1BACK TO DRUMMING
I made a return to drumming with a band in the late 1990s, and kept on through today. Almost all of the bands I was involved with worked hard. The ones that did not work hard were unable to keep me around for long.

However, something was different this time around. I wasn’t struggling to “make it” in the music business anymore. I wasn’t relying on music for money.

Instead, I was back to a place where I had once started, where my love for music, and what music gave me in return, was in play.

It felt great.

labrum tearMY LATEST ACTS OF RE-INVENTION
In March of 2014, I had a labrum tear in my right shoulder. The pain was unbearable, so much that I could not lay down to sleep for a month. Thanks to physical therapy and lots of work, I was able to mostly recover within a few years.

Of course, this meant that I could not play drums for quite some time. Being a drummer, lugging lots of gear is required. I could not even do this.

The band I joined in 2003, Noodle Muffin, had stopped gigging in 2009. I kept playing drums, fretless bass, guitar, keyboard, and any other instrument they wanted me to play on their recordings. This inspired me to beef up my own home recording studio, so that I could do more.

MD02 AKAI Professional MPD18I found value in the art of finger drumming, using the AKAI MPD18 with Addictive Drums [in Reaper] as a way of getting drums that sound more played than programmed.

When I got my home studio to a certain point, I started taking guitar lessons with my guitar consultant. He had sold me almost all of my guitars. He knew what I had and what might be a good addition to my collection.

He also knew what kind of music I liked. We worked on the basics for a while, until I hit a wall. It was through no fault of his, and ended up being an issue that I did not even know that I had.

A LATE DIAGNOSIS OF ASPERGER’S
I stopped taking lessons from him, while recommending to others that they study with him, since he’s a really good teacher.

I did not yet know if the problem was with him or me.

I had to find out what was wrong, so I went to get help. I agreed to a battery of intelligence and psychological tests. At the same time, I had started studying with another guitar instructor.

The IQ test results were very good. But the other tests concluded that I had Asperger’s, which is on the Autism spectrum and is classified as an Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD]. While there is no cure for this, there are ways to work around at least some of the issues.

I let my new instructor know about this. So far, we have been able to work around or through some of my issues. He has a better understanding of my issues than most people, which has turned out to be helpful.

WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?
Someone close to me, whom I will not name, asked me why I was taking guitar lessons, and what I was going to do with my guitar lessons. In their mode of literal thought, the natural progression is to get paid to play guitar in a band, or something along these lines. As someone with Asperger’s, I can relate to literal thought.

Through these lessons, I’m learning lots of new things. I’m taking on some difficult challenges as well.

Learning new things keeps a person’s brain active and engaged. It sparks creativity, opening the mind up to new ideas. It’s a way to keep growing. It’s making me a better musician overall. It’s making me a better guitar player, for nobody else but me.

I’m doing it for me, and I cannot think of a better person or a better reason.

MORE ABOUT MY ASPERGER’S DIAGNOSIS
It was hard to accept at first, especially when I learned that there is no cure for it. What made it difficult was seeing the horrible attitudes that others have about Asperger’s, as well as Autism in general.

Autistic Guitar Reddit.jpg
This message courtesy of the sensitive people on Reddit.

Looking back, I could see the impact that this had on my life. There were things that would happen, and I would always wonder why.

Sure, one cannot change the past. The good news was that parts of my past made sense. The bad news was that I was unclear about what this would mean about my future. Was there anything I could do about this?

The answer to this riddle certainly seemed bigger than sprouting an impressive mane of hair or turning into Pee-Wee Herman.

A BIG DECISION TO MAKE
At first, I felt devastated, as if my life was over. I’d been dealt a bad hand, and now I have to suffer it until I die. Maybe I should re-invent myself again, but this time do it for me.

The big trick to re-inventing one’s self is that it gets more difficult as you get older. Society expects people in their 50s to know what they’re doing, to be established, and to be settled. This is not how my life worked out. I know why, and I have accepted it.

EMBRACING THE NEWS
I could easily get depressed about this news, feel badly about it, or even use it as an excuse. For me, it’s more of an explanation than an excuse, even though it is the reason for some of the things that have happened to me in the past. Viewing it as an explanation was a good start.

Then I decided to not feel badly about it, and instead try to figure out how it worked for me. I have since learned that this is how I am able to memorize music and retain it. It’s how I can learn and memorize songs that are linear, and not modular. It’s also how I can do the same thing over and over and over again without getting bored by it. Instrument rehearsal involves a great deal of repetition.

As for those who are derogatory toward those who have Asperger’s or other types of Autism, I had to deal with that. The first thing is to understand that they’re ill-informed, and are broadcasting their ignorance the world. This allows me to have a laugh at their ignorance; an issue that can actually be fixed.

Dan Fender Autistic Telecaster.jpg

In a symbolic act of acceptance, I went out and got myself one of those “Autistic” guitars: A 2015 Fender Limited Edition American Standard Butterscotch Blonde Double-Cut Telecaster.

Only 500 of these were manufactured during the Fender “10 for ’15” campaign, so they’re actually difficult to find. Out of the ten different guitars that Fender made for this promotion, Vice President of Fender Product Marketing Justin Norvell said this particular model is, “quirky,” as well as “off-beat” and “a guaranteed collector’s item.”

It sounds and plays like a dream. I suspect that I love this guitar because of this, but also because it gets made fun of online. I’ve been made fun of online in the past. We relate to each other.

COPING WITH BAD ATTITUDES
You can stay positive about yourself all the live-long day. But when others take a bad attitude toward you, then simply staying positive is not enough.

You have to also be able to cope with people who have bad attitudes and what they have to say about you. Whether it’s indirect, such as the Reddit post, or pointed directly at me, it can have an impact.

Whether a person speaks in a hurtful way out of ignorance, or out of malice, I cannot control what they say. What I can do is control whether or not I will react to it. Reacting is emotional. Sometimes reactions can be overly-inflated in proportion to what is being said and who is saying it.

I have the power to respond to it, when appropriate, and to ignore it when it is not important. Who is the person saying these things? Are they important to me? Are they making a good, useful point? As my grandmother said, “Consider the source, and then ignore it.”

Refusing to let others ruin my day is the best thing for me to do.

TO SUMMARIZE
I could have ended up bitter about my lack of commercial and financial success in my attempts to get into the mainstream industrial music business in the mid-1980s. Instead, I accepted the reality of the situation. I also accepted my own failures, learned from them, and grew as a person.

I could have given up, put away my instruments, and moved on. Instead, I made adjustments to my life and my goals after accepting the reality of it all. In the chaos, I remembered that music was always an important part of my life. I am fortunate to not have lost that.

I could have quit when I had my labrum tear in early 2014. Instead, I modified my focus and adjusted what I was doing, so that I could keep music in my life.

I could have become stagnant with my music. Instead, I sought out instruction and knowledge, and worked to improve for myself.

Life is work. It’s a struggle. It will always be difficult for almost everyone. Re-inventing one’s own self after age 50 is a daunting task. The way I see it, I’m here, and I get the opportunity to do this.

I got to give my dreams a shot. I can look in the mirror and say that I did my best. I also learned how important music is to me, and I’ve learned a lot about myself.

As a result, I still have music in my life, and I have no regrets about what happened or how it all ended up.

IN THE END
Not only do I accept the hard work that I put into life, as well as into re-inventing myself, but I am proud of it.

Just as there are those who will say that I did not work hard enough, there are also those who will suggest that “the universe has a plan” for me. I do not buy this, for if the universe had a plan for me, then I’d not have to work hard or re-invent myself. Instead, I could sit back and enjoy the plan. At the very least, it would be good if the universe would tell me about this plan. That’s why I do not buy into this idea.

But if the universe were an actual being that was focusing its intelligence and plans for me, I would tell the universe to not waste its time. I would ask it to instead focus on the other people in the world who have very difficult lives. People who are sick, injured, or in really bad situations that are bleak.

Do not help me, universe. I’m doing fine and I have a good life. There is a long list of others who need the help way more than I do.

Now let’s go see what today has in store for us.

The Psychology of Music and Self-Perception

“Hey, great show! Love seeing your band, and I really enjoy your drumming.”

If you have ever played a show at a club, and then had someone say something like this to you after, then you know the feeling. You have to smile and say “thank you” to this person. Meanwhile, in your head you are re-playing all of the mistakes that you made during the show. Your opinion is that the show sucked.

This situation highlights the difficult psychological issues that come up for musicians. Others might view us as being great, while we have a different perspective of ourselves.

A FEW MORE EXAMPLES
When I told my band that I was taking guitar lessons, one of them had an interesting reply.

“Why would you do that? You’re already a great guitarist.”

My initial reaction to this was that maybe I should no longer trust his judgment, and that he’s lost all credibility with me. This is not because I have a judgment to pass on him, but because of judgments I pass on myself. I do not see myself in this light.

Later, I was on the other end of this transaction with my guitar mentor. I wrote him an email about where I want to go in my studies. I talked about artists whose work I wanted to investigate deeper. He was one of those artists. I said, “I really like your style and approach, which is why I’m here.”

When we had our latest lesson, he said that he’d read my email. He thanked me for the kind words, and then asked that we be “done with” the compliments. He did add that we may disagree about certain things in the future, as well.

I think that he approached it this way in order to intercept a potential issue that he may have had in the past with fans. Maybe he and the student had a disagreement, and some hard feelings resulted.

I have a respect for what he does, and do not approach anyone as if I’m a fan. Still, respect is an attribute that fans have, and expressing this can come off as if I’m a fan. I view fans as being blinded by celebrity, which is something I’ve done away with decades ago. Still, better safe than sorry.

In the end, my respect is understood, and now we’re going to move forward. I do not need to express this again.

UNDERSTANDING BOTH SIDES
If someone says they like what I do, then I take it at face value. They mean it. My perspective of myself or how my show went does not factor into their perspective of me or how their experience went.

I had to see both sides of this before I understood the dynamics of it.

A STRANGE THING THAT HAPPENS OVER TIME
When I was young, I learned, and then I did. Music came easily for me at the time. I felt that I had my genre of interest “mastered” to a degree that was sufficient for my artistic expression.

The older I got, the more  my perspective shifted. I would become unsatisfied with what I could do and what I knew. As a result, I would observe other players and try to teach myself elements of what they could do. I would also take lessons.

This resulted in a paradox, wherein the more I knew, the more I realized I did not know.

It’s like running on a football field, where you are certain that there is 300 yards of field in front of you. You start running toward to goal post on the other side, only to see it getting smaller. You keep running, and it gets bigger for a brief period, but then shrinks once again, rather quickly.

Suddenly, the other goal post appears to be many miles away. When you turn around to see your own progress, you realize that you’re only ten feet away from your original starting point.

WHAT YOU DO NOT KNOW
That feeling is daunting, and can cause someone to give up. As horrible as this feeling may be, let’s make it way worse.

If there is something you do not know, and you don’t know that you do not know it, then how can you know?

When I started with my guitar lessons, I had certain goals. Some of these goals ended up being modified, while others ended up going away completely. The more I learned, the more I realized I did not know.

Learning tends to go down this path. The guitar is an infinite instrument that can never truly be mastered. However, I can get better at what I want to do and what I want to get out of the instrument by practicing accordingly.

MY VIEW ON MY OWN ABILITIES
When I was young, I was a bad ass who could play any rock song I heard, to varying degrees. But as I got older, my musical interests got more complicated. Also, I wanted to be able to play beyond where I had been before.

I have confidence that I am not a beginner. However, the goal posts have moved so far that I cannot see the end. I can gain some ground, or so I think, by learning new things and implementing them into my tool box.

But will I ever be awesome? Will I ever be the best? Will I ever be a guitar god?

No. In fact, I may not ever think that I’m all that great. Not only do I acknowledged all of the musicians in the world who are beyond my ability, but these days I end up listening to music that I know I can never play.

As a musician, I have never been so good, and have never felt so not good.

DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a form of cognitive bias, where a person who has relatively low ability holds the illusion of superiority.

Everyone has witnessed this at one time or another. A good, generic example is the person who parrots all of the talking points of their favorite talk show host. As they speak, you can tell that they believe that they are smarter than you. When you ask them to clarify their position, they tell you to “Google it.”

HOW TO TELL IF YOU SUFFER THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT
A person who believes themselves to be the best, the smartest, the fastest, etc., suffer this effect if their abilities do not match their claims.

What most of the great musicians I know have in common is that they do not assert themselves to be in some kind of category. They are constantly learning.

I may enjoy some of my own music, but I don’t see any of it as some kind of stellar accomplishment, or something that will change the world. Regardless of where one puts my current skill level, I am open to learning more, I am actively learning, and I am actively practicing what I am learning.

Will I reach a level of greatness one day? Probably not. I’m enjoying learning, and I am also enjoying the results of my hard work.

I will not be writing the next great symphony, but I will be having fun with what I do.

CLIMBING A SUMMIT AND WHAT IS AT THE TOP
Every musician has had thoughts like this at one point in their lives, most probably when they were young.

“If only I can learn how to do [insert instrument trick here], I will have finally made it.”

On the surface, this sounds silly. To a degree, it is silly. But it’s also positive.

I had this belief long ago, that if I can learn how to play something, or build up speed, then I will have “arrived.” But then something strange happens when I actually work and acquire the ability to play this desired “thing.” That is, it’s no longer special. It no longer has meaning. It becomes something that “anybody can do.”

I’ve just learned something, and I don’t feel any better about it. I don’t feel that I’ve arrived.

As I stand on the summit of that “thing,” I look around and see one million other summits that need to be climbed. I see other people standing on those summits, and I know that it took them 50 years to get there.

I’m now at the base of a new summit, ready to take the first step toward getting to the top, with the realization that I won’t feel any differently when I get there. Taking those steps suddenly gets more difficult.

IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
People who suffer Impostor Syndrome have horrible thoughts about how they’re really no good at all. They’re a fraud, and everyone is going to find out.

This is the polar opposite of Dunning-Kruger. To summarize:

  1. Dunning-Kruger: Believing you’re the best, when you’re the worst.
  2. Impostor Syndrome: Believing you’re the worst, when you have ability.

I’ve had these feelings on many occasions, especially when I’m in the presence of someone who has incredible talent. If you work with someone who is way better than you, then you’ve felt this before.

Writing down your accomplishments and then working to internalize them can help with this issue.

SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE WITH HONESTY
I have never walked off a stage and thought to myself that I’d had a perfect performance. It just does not happen. However, I have left the stage after a show and declared, “That felt great!”

Indeed, the show did feel that way. The audience was fantastic. Sure, everyone in the band screwed up here and there, but nobody seemed to notice or care. Everyone had fun, and that is the ultimate point of it all.

DO NOT TRUST YOUR SELF-PERCEPTION
Your self-perception is about as reliable and possible as your ability for your eyeball to see itself without a mirror.

If you think you can, then you are correct. If you think you cannot, then you are correct.

While you may know yourself better than anyone else, you’re also an expert on how to fool yourself.

THE DANGERS OF YOUR SELF-PERCEPTION
If you believe that you are really good, then you have no motivation to learn more or to practice. This path leads to a place where you are no longer trying. Dunning-Kruger has just been invited to your house.

But if you believe that you are really bad, then you run the risk of giving up.

Either way, your opinion of yourself is not reliable.

HABITS OF THE BEST
One’s perception of others has a better likelihood of being honest.

Pick the best players you can think of, on any instrument, in any genre. What they all have in common is that they do not rest on their laurels [accomplishments] while declaring themselves to be the best.

They’re still running toward that goal post, working to improve, trying new things, implementing new abilities, and so on.

HOW TO COPE WITH IT ALL
As you read through this, you might be thinking that all of this sounds horrible. Why try to be a musician in the first place, when you cannot be the best? Many other questions like this one will rise up.

I do have some ways to cope with these perils, which I will share.

Abolish your opinion of yourself: Don’t think of yourself as good or bad.

Take the opinions of others with a grain of salt: They might have bias. Grandma said you have a beautiful singing voice. This may not be true. They could also be jealous. You will never know the truth, so keep some perspective on it.

Know when to add weight to opinions: A drunk in the bar who says you suck is meaningless. A judge in a competition who says you need work in areas has something valuable to say. A teacher who has a critique should be taken more seriously, and their claim must be investigated.

Set SMALL goals and keep notes: Playing a riff or rudiment at 50bpm might be your baseline. Once you have that clean, then set your metronome closer to a goal. Maybe you’re trying to slow down, or speed up. Whatever your goal may be, document your work toward that goal.

Celebrate your wins: Once you hit a goal, acknowledge it. Document it. Be proud of it. Generate a feeling about it. Understand that this feeling will go away quickly and become meaningless.

Forget about reaching a destination: Remember the goal post I mentioned earlier? The one that keeps moving? The point of it all has nothing to do with a destination.

THEN WHAT IS THE POINT?
When you dance, the point is not to start on one side of the room, and end up in a specific place in the room by the end.

The point is the dance.

The point of learning music is to learn. The point of making music is to make it.

I practice every day. Then, I play music every day. Sometimes I write and record music. Other times I make music with others. Some days I make music for a future record with my band. Other days, I make music that I suspect nobody will ever hear, and nobody will like.

If you want to learn music, then learn it.

If you want to make music, then make it.

If you want to do something else, then go do it.

Should you be looking forward to your destination, then understand that you will be met with disappointment. Instead, look at the grass under your feet. Smell the fresh air. Look at the animals moving about. Take in the sunset. It’s all you’ve got.

brucelee.jpg“Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired, go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand” –Bruce Lee

Music and Fear

As I’m gathering my thoughts for today’s blog, I cannot help but think of an episode of The Jackie Thomas Show from the early 90s, where Jackie [Tom Arnold] decides that he is going to pursue his life-long dream of being a rodeo clown.

He goes through rodeo clown school, and even ends up in the ring during a bull fight.

This is when he has the horrible realization that he is afraid of bulls.

Over the decades, I have set foot on some intimidating stages. I have also been in some intense recording situations with people who have more knowledge and experience than me. This is how one learns, but you have to get over the fear first and jump in.

I have never been afraid of these types of situations, for a variety of reasons, which I will get into later. But I have met some people who suffer a great deal of fear when it comes to being a musician. This fear would manifest itself in a few different ways. Sometimes it can be almost impossible to detect, or it can be confused for something else.

This fear can paralyze them, which has a rippling effect on the band.

THE PRE-SHOW PANIC
This is probably the worst type of panic for a band, because you’ve made a commitment to a venue and a promoter. People are in the audience and paid to get in. The club owners have expectations. Your band’s reputation is on the line.

And then, someone in the band freaks out. “I can’t go on the stage! I just can’t!”

This happened more than a few times. On one occasion, it was the drummer who panicked. My work-around for this was to present ourselves as being “unplugged.” It did not fit what we had prepared, it did not fit the evening, and it was a semi-disaster.

On another occasion, I had to flat-out tell the promoter that we could not go on because we had a band member just not show up. I covered for him, and for us, by saying that he was “on his way to the hospital” after a car accident on the way. After that, I dismantled the band.

There was also a time when a band member tried to hide it by getting wasted before the show. He had tried to drink enough that his fear would go away. Unfortunately, he also drank enough to fall face-first onto the stage half-way through the second song in our set.

All of these people were really good on their instruments and had other things going for them. This makes it all the more tragic. New bands typically start out on small stages, so I’m not certain how to avoid this potential disaster.

My stories above may provide some work-arounds. Sometimes you have to take the hit. Depending on the situation, taking this hit can mean losing your big chance.

AVOIDING REHEARSAL
Other instances of fear had less of an impact, although they did hinder progress.

On about half a dozen occasions, I had met musicians who had gone through a lot to get where they were. They’d gotten their instruments, maybe took lessons, and became good at what they did. They eve relocated to Los Angeles in order to take their shot.

In a few of these instances, I was the person renting the lock-out facility, where the band would rehearse. Everyone would leave their gear in there, for convenience.

Then, things would get strange. They would suddenly have excuses for why they could not rehearse. The most bizarre one was a guy who said to my face, “Every second that we do not rehearse is a second that all the other bands get an edge over us.” I told him that was good to hear, and that we should go rehearse now.

“Nah. The game’s on. We’ll do it later.”

THIS IS WHERE IT GETS CONFUSING
Was he lazy? That was my first thought. He was talking a big game, but then wasn’t backing up his own words. The conflict in what he said and did was obvious.

I made plans with him to meet at the lockout the next day in the afternoon. He agreed, and I left him to his game while I went to the room and rehearsed on my own.

THEN THINGS GET WEIRD
The next day, I show up an hour early to warm up and get ready. I’m so into my own playing that I suddenly realize that our meeting time had passed, and he had not shown up.

I go to a payphone and call the house. No answer. I work for a few more hours, then call again. Someone answered, and they told me that he had decided to “go back home.” He did not explain why.

I asked what should be done with his guitar, amp, and pedals. They did not know, as he did not mention it. I kept his gear in the lockout for six months, waiting for him to get back to me, before I came to the conclusion that he had abandoned his gear. I sold it.

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HOW I KNEW IT WAS FEAR
He did not seem like a lazy person, as he had put a lot of time into his instrument, as well as lots of effort to relocate to Los Angeles.

HOW TO SPOT THIS FEAR
Over time, I took on a few different techniques for band member auditions that help weed out some potential issues.

Musician History: Has this person performed on a stage before? They can potentially lie about this, but it is worth asking [bonus for photos]. Also, do they have any recordings under their belt? Finally, do they have any references? References can be tricky, because nobody will give you a reference who will say bad things about you. Information can be helpful.

Two-Phase Audition: Break your auditions into two sections. For the first phase, it’s a night spent at a bar having drinks. What do they drink? How much? This helps you to learn more about them on a personal level, before they set foot in the audition room.

During the second phase, which is where they play music with the band, have a dozen or so friends show up. Make sure they understand that this is not a fun social gathering. No drinking or partying. You want them to give the audition a serious listen and be writing down notes. Let the person auditioning know that there will be notes and critiques.

This will put some real-life stage pressure on them. How they handle this, and if they can handle it, can determine whether or not a future fear-driven issue will arise.

HOW TO COPE WITH THIS FEAR
Maybe you are the person who wants to be a musician, but also has issues with fear. Adequately addressing this fear before things get serious is a good idea. It keeps you from wasting your own time, as well as the band’s time. It also makes sure that fear does not get in the way of what you would like to achieve.

Being Well-Rehearsed: This can help, although it did not help my old guitar player who ran away so fast that he abandoned his own gear. I think his case was rather extreme. This definitely helps me.

Run The Show: Having the songs down is one thing. Rehearsing the show will give you more confidence. This means EVERYTHING, including when songs will be back-to-back, when there will be breaks between songs, and even when the singer will address the crowd. Yes, he should even rehearse what he is going to say.

Running the show is a something that I took away from my experiences in marching band. When the show is second-nature, you don’t even have to think about it. That is a relief!

Get Professional Help: Do not believe that you will grow out of it, or that it will magically go away once you get to the big-time. If big enough, this issue will actually get in your way, which would be tragic. Truly crippling fear never helped anyone.

Do Away With Negative Thoughts: Thinking about all of the possible things that could go wrong will only spin you down into that dark spiral faster. Accepting the fact that both good AND bad things will happen, and that these things do not matter, can go a long way toward dealing with this.

Let Go of Perfection: Not only are you going to make mistakes, but most likely nobody will notice or remember.

Do Not Take It Too Seriously, and Be Entertaining: Being a musician on a stage should be more than just playing the music. Performance and presentation are everything. Be goofy sometimes. Practice having fun.

Invent a Persona or Character: This helps to remove the ego, which can be fragile and can drive that fear. What if people don’t like me? What if this or that? These are the thoughts that push you down into that hole.

The truth is that, no matter how good you are, there will be people who do not like you, or who do not like what you do. It’s a fact of life. When you have a persona in the mix, you can separate it from yourself.

So if some people do not like it, then they’re having an issue with your persona, and not you as a human being. Of course, the truth is that they do not really know you as a human being. This fact means nothing to a person who is entrenched in fear. Logic is not soothing.

IN THE END
Being a prepared musician, running the show, building a persona, ending negative thoughts, and having fun with it all will go a long way. You’re a musician on a stage, not a heart surgeon in a hospital struggling to save someone’s life.

When you have fun with it, the audience will join along.

OH, AND ABOUT THAT PESKY RECORD BUTTON
Recording can be scary. Just remember that you will get a chance for second takes, third takes, and beyond. Even if you give a solid performance, a second take might be required as a “safety.”

YOU get to decide when it’s ready to ship.

Sometimes mistakes get to stay because they bring a human element to the fold, or maybe because the listener may never notice.

There is a mistake in this recording. There are also a good number of mistakes on this iconic album. Try to find it. Trust yourself. Don’t worry about it.

Putting the “Business” in the “Music Business”

It is said that if you do not make mistakes, then you are not trying hard enough.

I’ve made many mistakes over the years. The up-side of it is that I got to learn from them. The down-side is that valuable time got lost, as well as money.

Today, I’ll take you through some of my bigger mistakes, and share what I’ve learned. Hopefully, my errors can help you save valuable time, or even money, and help you to get where you want to be faster.

While some of these scenarios will sound negative, because they are bad situations, the positive side of this is giving a heads-up to those young musicians who are setting out to make something of themselves in the music business.

There can be no positive without negative, hot without cold, inside without outside, or light without darkness. Attempting to separate them would be a fool’s game, but that’s another blog for another time.

2008 Casanova Jones Paladinos
Gig at Paladino’s, drumming for Casanova Jones [2008]
WHEN ARE YOU IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS?
Some might think that you’re not in the music business until you get signed by a major label. That’s really old thinking, but it’s also errant. The minute you achieve a level of proficiency on your instrument and set out to join or form a band with the goal of earning money, you are in the music business.

Yes, before you’ve booked one show and earned one dollar, you are in the music business.

AUDITIONING FOR THE BAND
Auditions are like job interviews. Sure, the band/boss wants to find out that you’re qualified. But at the same time, you want to know that you’re getting the pay, benefits, and other compensation package details in return.

With bands, it’s only pay.

Once the band knows what you can do, it is time to have a business discussion, so that you know what to expect in return for your efforts.

Is there rehearsal pay? Are room, board, and travel covered? Is there a stipend? Have this discussion, and be ready to say no if what they offer is not acceptable.

TALK ABOUT MONEY AND EXPECTATIONS UP-FRONT
Do not try to do this after you’ve participated in a bunch of rehearsals and have played a few gigs. By this point, it’s too late, because you’ve de-valued your services as a musician and band member by working for free.

Always discuss the business aspects BEFORE playing one note in a rehearsal or gig. Understand what they expect from you, and have them understand what you expect from them.

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Performing as a hired gun at the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood [2009]
BAND MEMBER vs. HIRED GUN
The above applies to both band members and “hired guns.” A hired gun is not a band member, and they are usually paid a flat rate. So if the band sees a crazy amount of success, the band member still gets that flat rate. Renegotiation is recommended.

While a band member may be asked to share in expenses, the hired gun should not. So if you are a hired gun, and you are being asked to split the cost of a rehearsal space, recording studio time, or other expenses, then you are being ripped off.

Being a hired gun can pay off, if you work it right. When Pink Floyd was having issues and were dissolving before they were touring for “The Wall,” the camps were split between David Gilmour and Roger Waters.

Keyboardist Rick Wright showed little in the way of allegiance toward either side, and instead insisted that he get paid by whomever wanted him. He also demanded to be paid for The Wall tour. In doing this, he absolved himself of participation, should the tour make millions. However, he also absolved himself of incurring any of the expenses.

The tour ended up being very expensive, to the point that Rick Wright was the ONLY person to make money on the tour. He earned $700,000.

dan and fred 2
Hired gun for comedian Fred Willard at Wilshire Ebell Theater [2009]
SET BOUNDARIES FOR PROFESSIONALISM
Being in a band is not like being in an office. There can be partying and good times. There can also be addiction and destruction. If you note behavior in rehearsals or touring that is unprofessional, make note of it and give consideration to moving on.

One band I was in had a 7:00pm rehearsal time. I got there at 6:00pm to get warmed up. Nobody showed up until almost 8:00pm. When everyone was there by 8:30pm, they decided that a beer run was in order before starting rehearsal, which ended up around 9:30pm.

This scenario is both unprofessional and unacceptable. It shows no respect toward anyone’s time. Even worse, it shows a disrespect toward the music. They’re not taking their own business seriously.

You’ll find that lots of people who want to be musicians engage in this behavior. If you want to be a musician because you don’t like working, then you will end up bagging groceries.

Treat it like a business.

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Drumming with Noodle Muffin at The Westwood Brewing Company [2002]
BEWARE OF LIES AND STICK TO THE PLAN
One band I was in briefly answered an ad that I had placed, saying they needed a drummer to fill in for a last-minute gig, or else they’d have to pay a $500 cancellation fee. I decided to step in and fill the spot for them. My offer was $300 for two rehearsals before the half-hour show.

My mistakes in this situation started when I allowed emotions to over-ride business. I liked their music, they seemed like good people, and they had a standing monthly gig listed on their Facebook page.

With all of this information, I re-negotiated with them, stating that I would not charge them for the rehearsals OR the gig, if I could be a band member and share in the money of these monthly gigs.

It would be a few months before they would finally admit that the standing monthly gigs were fake, and that they’d put it on their Facebook page in order to “look busy, and generate demand.”

Obviously, they lied to me by not telling me that these gigs were fake when I re-negotiated.

If I were smart, I would have first stuck to the original negotiation for that fill-in gig. Then, I would have not been friendly with them so quickly. Finally, I would have told them that I was interested in negotiating a rate for their standing monthly gigs.

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 On keyboard with Robin Baxter Band at Club 88 in Santa Monica [1987]
A WORD ABOUT FRIENDS, BEING FRIENDLY, AND BOUNDARIES
I have typically fallen into the trap, where a band or musician is friendly with me, I become friendly with them, and then I drop all boundaries and defenses.

This is a major flaw of mine that has caused me problems for my entire life. Only recently have I received the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Before the diagnosis, I really had no idea that I was even doing this.

Now that I know, I can be more conscious and aware of it, and implement boundaries with the rule that I must stick to them, no matter how nice someone else might be.

I got this information about myself too late in life While it speaks volumes to my failures with setting and maintaining boundaries, it is also a testament to just how many people will take advantage of you if you get friendly with them and drop boundaries.

Always keep boundaries up for your own protection. People who are honest and who care about you will respect those boundaries. If someone is offended or upset by it, then it is time to move on, no matter how much you like the band or the music.

WHEN A BAND SETS BOUNDARIES
Now that you’ve joined a band as a member, or have formed a band of your own, you’ve got a new set of boundaries to keep in mind when doing business.

For those who are hired guns, your boundaries remain the same. What I’m talking about her would not apply to you, since you are being paid to be there.

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Performing on fretless bass with Noodle Muffin at Universal Bar & Grill [2009]
WORKING FOR “EXPOSURE”
There are people out there who will try to get you to play their big party or event, with the promise of “exposure.” They’ll tell you how hundreds of people will see and hear you, and that it could potentially get you more business.

These are situations that you should always reject, without hesitation or question.

Best case scenario, you play a party in exchange for “exposure,” and a half dozen people think you’re great and want to hire you. They will probably talk to the person who got you to play for “exposure,” and ask them how much they paid you.

This will set the bar low for you in the future, and will make earning money nearly impossible.

Setting your price and then sticking to it adds value to what you do. Never de-value your own band.

2003 Whiplads.jpg
Drumming in WHIPLADS at The Riverbottom in Burbank [2003]
PAY-TO-PLAY
I have only experienced this in Los Angeles, but it could be happening in other cities. In a pay-to-play situation, the band pays the club up-front, and then they have to sell the tickets to first make their money back, and then profit.

At its worst, I once drummed for a band who paid a club on the Sunset Strip $700 so that they could play a 25-minute set.

If you are going to consider a venture such as this one, then you must be certain that you can get enough people to buy tickets to cover what you pay.

Generally speaking, I would recommend that bands avoid these situations.

2000 Secret.jpg
Performing with SECRET at The Gig West LA [2000]
DO NOT GIVE AWAY TICKETS FOR FREE
With one pay-to-play situation, the band was not doing a good job of selling the tickets. They decided to eat the money they spent and give away the tickets. The idea behind this was that they could get bodies in the door, impress club management, and more drinks would be purchased.

It did not work out this way. The club management saw how few people were there, panicked, yelled at the band leader, and had people on the sidewalk telling passers-by that a “free show” was in progress. It was embarrassing.

When you give away tickets, the person who receives the ticket has NO attachment to the ticket, the band, the show, or anything. There is no consequence for them if they throw it in the trash, or even decide last-minute that they’re not going.

But when a person pays ten bucks for a ticket, they’re more likely to show up.

Giving away tickets de-values your band.

I’m certain that you’re seeing a recurring theme here.

SAY “NO” TO PROMOTERS WHO ASK FOR FILL-INS
I had built up a relationship with a promoter in LA, with one of my bands. This promoter seemed like a really nice person who appreciated the professional efforts of others.

One night, the promoter called me in a panic, noting that a band that was scheduled to open for a headliner cancelled last-minute.

My flawed thinking behind this was that if I do this favor for them, then they will return the favor by booking us better gigs.

2008 Karma Live
Performing with Karma McCartney at The Good Hurt in Venice [2008]
As you can guess, it did not work out that way. Instead, the promoter viewed us as a reliable fill-in band. Ironically, the promoter would not book us for gigs because they wanted to keep us in their back-pocket as the reliable last-minute fill-in.

What you may not have guessed was that our relationship actually got rather ugly at the end. The promoter asked us to fill a last-minute spot on the weekend before Christmas, which was on a Monday.

The promoter told us the usual, that we did not have to have a head count. In other words, we did not have to promote, guarantee a crowd, or bring anyone.

Any musician who has ever played in Los Angeles knows that LA clubs become a ghost town from a week before Christmas, until the New Year. We took the gig merely out of fun in this case.

The promoter came to the venue, saw nobody there, and chewed us out for not getting people in the club. This was unreasonable, not only because the promoter told us that we did not need to bring people or promote, but also because NO BAND can get a crowd during this particular time of year. Everyone is out of town, doing other things.

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Drumming with The Average Joes at Hinano’s in Venice [2009]
Taking a fill-in gig is an act of… take a wild guess… de-valuing the band. As you set boundaries for your band with promoters, be ready to counter them. They will use emotional manipulation to try to get you to do what they want.

2005 Whiplads
Double gig with WHIPLADS and Falling Moon at The Gig Hollywood [2005]
They may even threaten you with the typical talk of, “you’ll never work in this town again.” In our case, bending to the will of the promoter ensured, at the very least, that we would never again work for that promoter.

It’s very counter-intuitive, which is why it is so important to lean on your boundaries. Things are not always as they appear.

Should a promoter as you to fill in for a last-minute slot, the best thing to do is to first apologize, and the tell them that you are already booked for another gig. Feel free to say that this gig is paying you, so you cannot cancel. This also shows them that you stick to your commitments.

While this is not honest, it is essential to protect your band by doing this. It is your business, and the alternative is to allow your business to be compromised. Being 100% honest at all times will destroy all of your hard work.

 

Approach this in a way where you are protecting your business, while not actively harming anyone else. You are not harming a promoter by not taking their spot and declaring that you are busy.

The cancellation by the other band is THEIR problem, and not yours.

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Playing fretless bass with Black Hole Bindhi at Good Hurt in Venice [2009]
OWE NO FAVORS AND ACCEPT NO PERSONAL GIFTS
This tip is very important, because you could end up in a bad situation. Best case, you could lose some gear or money. Worst case, you could lose your life.

FAVOR: LEAVING GEAR ELSEWHERE
I’ve made the mistake of wanting to leave drums where I might be rehearsing with a band, such as in the band leader’s garage, a lock-out, or jam room in their house.

There was one situation, where the bass player had a meth problem and I did not know it. When I got to the lock-out, all of the gear had been taken by him. He sold all of it, thousands of dollars worth of gear, at a pawn shop for $100 to get meth.

In another situation, I kept a great deal of gear in a garage owned by a “friend.” He one day changed the locks, threatened me, and refused to return it. That was a $5,000 mistake.

Suing him and getting it back would have made a point, but it also would have cost much more than replacing the gear with new upgrades. Knowing his violent behavior, not knowing the condition of the gear while it was in his charge, and wanting to steer clear of it all, I decided to not pursue it.

Hard lesson learned.

PERSONAL GIFTS ARE NOT WORTH IT
This is a lesson that I learned from someone else. It’s a scenario that is less likely to occur in California.

In my friend’s situation, he played a show where some serious gangsters were in attendance. One of the gangsters approached him, said he really liked his music, and put a $100 bill in his hand.

Had he put it in the tip jar anonymously, that would be acceptable. But this was personal.

He handed the bill back to the guy and told him it was not necessary. The guy proceeded to apply pressure to him. “Ah, c’mon! It’s just a hundred bucks. You’re worth it, right?”

This high-pressure sell would have probably worked on me, especially since I now understand how my Asperger’s contributes to my being easily manipulated.

In the past, I would say no to someone, and they’d start with the hard press. Eventually, I would say yes just to get them to stop pressing me about it. But this would later open the door to additional manipulation, as well as abuse.

He had to work hard to get the guy to take the money back. Eventually, the guy took it back. The gangster told him, “Smart man. You know how to deal with guys like us.”

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF HE HAD ACCEPTED THE PERSONAL GIFT?
Accepting gifts makes a person beholden to the person who gives them the gift. This is why gifts are illegal for politicians. It’s also why accepting gifts from vendors and business associates at work will cost someone their job.

Had he accepted the $100 personal gift from this gangster, he would have been beholden to the gangster. Their next conversation probably would have involved the gangster asking him for a small favor that could involve delivering a package.

If you end up on this road, you may very well end up in prison, if you are lucky. Worst case, you can end up dead by being involved with them.

Never, ever, ever accept a gift. Tips are fine, but no gifts. Keep your integrity and your life.

A BRIEF SUMMARY
By now, you’re probably noticing a few patterns and themes here. With regard to business, here is a summary of my points:

  1. Be professional.
  2. Discuss business before playing one note at a rehearsal or gig.
  3. Have clarity regarding your position [band member or hired gun], and be sure that their expectations and yours match up.
  4. Set boundaries and stick to them.
  5. Be aware of lies, drug and alcohol abuse, and other indicators that the situation is not professional.
  6. Express your band’s value by not working for free or giving away free tickets.
  7. Do not do favors for anyone outside of the band.
  8. Avoid adopting the problems of others, such as promoters.
  9. Avoid pay-to-play.
  10. Remain professional and keep up boundaries, even if band members are friendly.
  11. Do your best to owe no one any favors.
  12. Do not accept gifts.

If I had to sum it up to one line, it would be this:

Be professional, talk business, put yourself and/or your band first, and keep an eye on your money.

IN THE END
Making music for fun is one thing. I have situations where I do this, and I truly enjoy it. However, when you’re approaching it from a business standpoint, be aware that there are lots of people who may not be so professional.

Bands typically come and go. Situations do not always work out. Be prepared to leave a project if you have concerns. You can bet that they would ditch you in a heartbeat, if it suited them.

Be safe out there, and best of luck.

Music, Backpacks, and Finding the Positive

“Everyone has rocks in their backpack.”

This is something my guitar mentor told me recently, after I had confided in him that I was experiencing some issue relevant to what we were doing. I may talk about those issue someday. More about these “rocks” later in this blog.

I wanted to write this as as follow-up to my previous blog entry, Anecdote: Sharks, Sour Grapes, and Fruit Baskets. Although the story is honest, and it reflects what could be expected of the old music industry model, I felt that it was too negative.

It was probably one of the most negative experiences that I’ve had on the inside. To put a more positive light on it, I did not let it destroy me, and I kept on. I’m still here!

There will always be negativity in the world, and in daily life when dealing with others. Various situations will arise, where you might get those feelings, or a sense of anxiety.

THE OLD MUSIC BUSINESS MODEL STINKS!
You can’t sell records. You won’t make big bucks with it. It’s not what it used to be.

These sentiments are very true, and that is one way of thinking about it. If you try to get somewhere with music in the same way that I tried in the mid-1980s, then you’re not only going to have a bad time, but you will probably get almost no traction at all.

It may still be possible, as a few dinosaur labels are kicking. There are other things to do.

YOU CAN STILL MAKE SOMETHING OF IT
If you write and record a song or album with the idea of moving units or having hits, then you might be taking the wrong approach. Second-guessing the audience or hip trends is always a fool’s errand.

By being true to yourself and doing what you want to do, you can create something and then push it out there as a representation of who you are.

YouTube, SoundCloud, Patreon, and other digital avenues are out there. Most do not cost very much, if anything, and you can reach more people. Get creative with it. Chances are that you will not sell one million albums, but you can make things happen with other avenues.

With Patreon, for example, you can have tiers and offer exclusive access to fans and social networking followers to participate in those tiers by donating a specific monthly amount. I don’t want to get into it too much, as I’d rather encourage you to check it out for yourself.

There has never been a better time in the history of music for independent musicians and songwriters than right now. It’s incredible.

MAKING THINGS BETTER
As you use today’s modern tools, think about how you can make them better, or how you can better utilize them to your advantage. Expensive hardware has been replaced with cheap or free plug-ins. Pricey interfaces are no long the only option, and other options are within almost anyone’s budget.

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Today, you can make your own album-ready music. I’ve been doing this with Noodle Muffin for the past 15 years, as we’ve self-recorded and self-produced everything we have ever released. The band was doing self-production long before I joined, as well. You can check out our albums on iTunes. It’s a fun band with some great songs, which is why I’m there.

ABOUT THOSE ROCKS IN MY BACKPACK
It is true that we all have rocks in our backpack. When he told me this, I initially took it as a simple way of being kind while rightfully suggesting that we’ve all got problems. However, I decided to dig a little deeper into what this statement means to me.

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It’s not a separate thing you have to do. It’s a part of what you do.

I was in the middle of writing this, when the batteries in my keyboard died, and I had to change them.

That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that the need to change the batteries was a part of my writing of this blog.

I don’t view this as part of the rocks, so much as the dust that gets kicked up when I start running and the rocks start bouncing in my backpack. At least, that’s my perception of it.

If that’s just the dust, then how big are these rocks?

WHAT IS THE BACKPACK?
The backpack represents a person’s ego. The ego is a container that I call “me.” You call it “I.” It lives in a biological locker known as your brain.

The rocks represent life experiences. It could be a parent saying that you’re “stupid,” or school kids calling you “ugly,” or a teacher who says that you’ll never get anywhere. It can be what you like, or your expectations, or behaviors. These are all rocks that are put in your backpack for you.

You put your own rocks in there, too, with negative self-talk, or memory of moments where you tried something and failed. When you quit instead of persisting, that’s another rock. Adopting preferences, becoming a fan of something, being influenced by marketing, going with the crowd, your hopes and fears, and more, are all considered to be rocks.

Not only do we hang onto these, but we cling tightly to them and carry them around. This is “me.” The contents of the backpack is who I am.

At one point, not only was my backpack full, but a stone quarry was dropped on my head a few years ago, when I was publicly scammed. Without getting into the re-telling or re-living of this horrible event, I will talk about how I dealt with it.

HOW WAS YOUR DAY?
Ah, you wouldn’t believe it. I was writing a blog, when my keyboard batteries died. So I went to my battery stash and did not have any of the proper size. This meant that I had to get pants, drive to the store, get the batteries, and stand in line. By the time I got back, I felt so uninspired. It just ruined my entire day, you know? [insert bad attitude and negative feelings here.]

Can you imagine letting batteries ruin your day? Batteries!

The attitude about it would be the first problem, and the re-hash of it would be the second problem.

This is why accepting it as being part of the process is so important, when compared to adopting it as a problem. This is also why I won’t write about the details of what happened. That information is for the investigating authorities. It’s not for my daily life.

THE REALLY BIG ROCKS
Getting scammed was one of the biggest rocks in my backpack. It’s easier to blow off dead batteries, than it is to cope with a life-changing event such as this. With the really big rocks, you have to chip away at them. This can take years.

This one took me four years, and I had to find ways to cope with the weight of it all, while trying to live a regular everyday life. This rock was so tremendously big that it obscured my vision.

After years of chopping away, it has been turned to sand. This has been pouring out through a hole in my backpack, like sand through an hour glass. Time healing wounds.

TAKING THE ROCKS OUT
Therapy is valuable. When discussing these rocks with a professional, their responses can sometimes result in the removal of some of the rocks. Trying to cover it up or going into denial might provide temporary relief, but this does not deal with them.

The rocks are still there. You’re just pretending they are not there.

Rocks are intimidating and overwhelming. Big rocks can be crippling.

DUMPING OUT THE ROCKS
Treatments involving therapy with psilocybin have been mentioned in the news recently, as a way of treating Veterans who suffer PTSD. The purpose of this treatment it to reset and normalize activity in the Amygdala.

The PTSD, or “triggering,” arises when statements or events result in an “Amygdala hijack.” This is an immediate and over-the-top reaction to something that is typically not meant to be all that bad. It’s making a boulder out of a piece of gravel.

For a while, I had a fear of going outdoors, and was lacking in confidence. These rocks have weight and power.

artworkUSING MUSIC TO COPE
I had addressed some of the major rocks in my life by spending 2017 writing and recording a series of songs related to people and events of my life that were of concern to me.

Some of the people mentioned in the songs had a hand in making the giant boulder in my backpack more difficult.

The result was “The Year of My Birth [2017],” which is a collection of those songs.

Putting these people and events into songs was a way of taking them out of my backpack, looking at them, and tossing them aside. I don’t have to think about them anymore.

People who do not write music often do something similar, when they write these things down on a piece of paper and then burn it.

GETTING A NEW BACKPACK
This may be done with a great level of psilocybin or other psychedelics, and the resulting effect is known as an “ego death.” I am not recommending this approach, and have not done this. I still have the same backpack. It’s just significantly lighter now.

What I have done involves the employment of meditation, as well as forgiveness. The forgiveness is not about excusing what they did, or letting them know that it did not hurt you.

MORE ABOUT FORGIVENESS
The forgiveness surrounding my biggest rock involved letting go of what happened by accepting that it is now part of the past. It is not who I am, and is not my future.

It means not holding bad feelings or grudges against the many people in this incident. These grudges will make a person sick. That’s a guarantee. Concepts, such as hating them or wanting to get revenge, get thrown out the window.

This is not to suggest that I would be friends with them. The similarities between loving someone and hating someone is that it’s an act of caring about them. By not caring about them, it is as if they no longer exist in my world. These negative people are now completely inconsequential in my mind.

I do not have the space, time, or energy for hating anyone.

THERE IS NO BACKPACK
Now we’re getting into the realm of intense spiritualists who become Elements of Heatless Light.

Do not think that you can never achieve it, for this is not about achievement, a goal, or a destination. When you dance, there is no spot on the dance floor where you try to end up. When you write a song, it’s not about the ending.

It’s about what you’re doing right now. After that, it’s not about what you did just then, and is about what you’re doing right now.

The only problem is that if you think you’ve attained it, then this act means that you have not. It is not a destination.

Turn left.

HOW ALL OF THIS APPLIES TO MUSIC
It is said that art comes from pain, and it really can. But when a person is angry, depressed, or otherwise injured, the last thing they want to do is create music. Anything that can get in the way of a person’s ability to get out of bed or to pick up an instrument is not conducive to the creative process.

Whether you’re a new student who is just learning, or a seasoned player who is working on new things, being able to play your instrument with a clear mind is essential to progress and creativity. At the very least, it is more difficult to focus and do what one wants to do with a heavy backpack.

A PROMISE TO MYSELF
I will be leaving the previous blog up, as a reminder of what I would prefer to avoid. While I will not avoid the negative aspects or challenges associated with music, I will take the time and care to address these things in a positive light, in a way that is productive and educational.

The promise I make to myself is a promise that I make to you, the reader. This blog will not turn into a dumping ground of negativity.

TODAY
Today, there is practice to be done, lessons to be written, floors to be swept, dishes to be washed, and garbage to be taken out. I will not think of these items as things that I have to do, like chores. Instead, I will approach these items as things that are a part of my life.

 

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The endless river… forever and ever…

Today, I get the opportunity to live. I can sweep the floors, wash the dishes, take the garbage out, do my lesson work, and practice my own music lessons. I might even get to write a song, and maybe record it, too.

 

I will have no expectations regarding any of it. What gets done will get done. What does not will not.

Should the winds blow, I will set my sails. Should the air be still, I will row my oars. Should my arms grow tired, I will rest in my boat and enjoy the scenery. And should I catch a fish, I will consider it a bonus.

I have no destination.

What I do have is right now. My attitude toward and about “right now” is for me, and I will give myself what I deserve.

I will not waste “right now” with negativity, hatred, or fear. And I will not fear Death, for Life is an illusion caused by Death.

Anecdote: Sharks, Sour Grapes, and Fruit Baskets

Today, if we want to meet other musicians, we can use the internet to learn a lot about what they do before we encounter them. When I started out, it was a different story.

GRAPE HUNTING
I’d had my industry-focused bands, and had taken a few shots at success in the music business as a musician before stepping outside of the drumming world, into the realm of songwriting. I had placed an ad in The Recycler, a Los Angeles periodical paper that is something like today’s CraigsList, in search of a female singer.

At the time, female singers were starting to gain in popularity. They’ve always been popular, but I could feel the eyes of the business gazing more intently at these future artists.

I GOT A BITE
My ad did get answered a few weeks later, when I got a call from a singer who said that she was looking for a songwriter. I’d not heard her sing anything, and knew nothing about her. My imagination filled in the gaps, and my mind was teeming with visions of the possibilities.

We scheduled a meeting, so I drove to her apartment. This would be where I would learn more about her, without us having a direct discussion.

MORE ABOUT HER
She came from a wealthy family from Florida. Her father gave her an allowance of $10,000 per week, with the caveat that she not have a boyfriend. Cell phones were not prevalent in the late 80s, which was lucky for her, because her father liked to keep tight tabs on her.

I learned all this by sitting in her apartment and waiting for her to end a call with her father. I got to hear one side of a conversation for over an hour.

Eventually, she asks me if I want to just go with her to meet her producer. He lives about six miles away, in the Hollywood Hills. I do not even give a thought to the idea that I’ve not yet heard her sing, and that things were moving quickly. I agreed to go, so we got in her car and went to see him.

THE SHARK TANK
We go through the Hollywood Hills, near the top, and park near this huge mansion. My nerves are going nuts, because I’m going in here completely blind. I tell myself that, so what if I’ve not heard her sing yet. She’s got a producer, so she must be good.

He answers the door, and she introduces me to him. His name will not be mentioned here, due to the nature of this story.

He warmly welcomes me to his home, and we make our way to his office, which takes more than a few minutes on foot.

TALKING BUSINESS / PROSPECTUS
We sat in his office, and he showed me a Prospectus for her album. The numbers that I saw in this document must have been for tax purposes. The first song in the Prospectus, which was supposedly going to be her “hit song,” had a production cost of $975,000 listed.

Of course, I asked why it cost so much to produce just one song. He said that he always includes the cost of the studio / production facility [his mansion], as well as those who are “writing” the music via “work made-for hire.”

THE PIT
He takes us out of his office for another long walk. Eventually, we’re on a catwalk of sorts, looking down on a pit. The pit is surrounded by book shelves, has hardwood floors, and has a sunken-down area in the center.

The pit has its own pit.

In the sunken down area is a big mixing board, with a young kid working on each side of the board.

He gleefully tells me what is going on in the pit.

“See that kid on the left? He makes drum beats all day long. It’s all he does. I pay him $7 per hour. And that kid on the right? He is on a synth, making bass lines, chord progressions, melodies, and other items, at my request. I also pay him $7 per hour. They make what I want, when I want it.

As I listened to him tell me these things, I start to get a sinking feeling in my stomach.

THE SHARK ATTACKS: I GOT BIT
After he tells me about his production process, from Prospectus to work made-for-hire, the tone in his voice changes. The look on his face changes. He turns to me, grabs me by the shoulders, and the whole situation turns threatening.

“Look, I don’t know how you know my client. I don’t know how you ended up here. But I’m going to tell you something, and you’d best listen. I don’t give a flying fuck if your name is Ludwig van Fucking Beethoven. Hollywood DOES NOT NEED YOU. NOW GET THE FUCK OFF MY PROPERTY!”

He grabs the girl by her arm, and pushes on a bookshelf, which appears to be a secret opening to a hidden room. The shelf closes, and I hear a door slam a few seconds later. This is followed by some muffled yelling. It might be safe to assume that he made it clear to never bring a musician or writer before his eyes again.

I would never encounter either of them again.

THE WALK OF SHAME
It took me almost 15 minutes to find my way out of his mansion. The first door to the outside world that I found was the back door. It had a few Doberman guard dogs on the other side, who also did not like me.

I did find the front door, and was able to get off of his property without being killed by a pack of dogs.

It was raining. The Hollywood Hills is comprised of winding roads with NO sidewalks. I would end up walking in the rain for at least 90 minutes before I got to a place where buses ran. I caught a bus to my car.

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Dance, monkey! Dance! And make it entertaining.

LESSONS LEARNED
I was grateful for this experience, and not just because they ended up not being serial killers.

It gave me a window into the true nature of the big-money music business.

It showed me how they exploit people who have talent.

It also showed me how they do this for financial gain, by defrauding the IRS, as well as generating one-sided contracts.

It showed me how musicians are the ditch diggers of the music business. But this story did a lot more for me.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
As someone who never “made it” in the music business, I’ve often been told by others that I’m “just bitter” because I did not become a big-name musician. While I can understand this type of bitterness, what I learned informed me in a way where bitterness would not enter the picture for me.

SOUR GRAPES?
Everyone knows the fable of The Fox and the Grapes. It’s a story about a fox who wants to eat some grapes. He looks high up the vine at these grapes. He tries jumping up to get a taste of these grapes. However, no matter how hard he tries, he just cannot reach the grapes. Eventually, the fox gives up, and instead of admitting defeat, declares that they’re undesirable.

“Ah, who cares! They’re probably sour anyway!”

This parable is where we get the phrase “sour grapes.” Those who suggest that I might be bitter are effectively telling me that I’m declaring the grapes that are the music business to be sour.

Their suggestion could not be further from the truth, in part because of this experience that I had.

Unlike the fox, I was able to pull down the grapes. I was in a music producer’s mansion. He showed me his Prospectus. He pulled back the curtain and showed me the old man pulling the levers. He exposed it all to my face.

In my subsequent years and decades after this experience, I got to personally witness things that confirmed for me the idea that this experience that I had was NOT just a one-off.

The old business model for music is mostly dead, and is being replaced by a variety of other business models. While some may dispute or debate the details of this, it is an observable fact.

IN THE END
I actually got to taste the grapes. As a result, I am not bitter, angry, or disappointed that I did not get a full plate of grapes.

However, it was not a quick lesson. It would take me a long time to come to this conclusion, and I beat myself up over it up until the 90s were nearly over. As I have written in a previous blog, I felt horribly about the idea that I was going to be 30 years old, and had not gotten myself a seat at the music business table. Even then, what I experienced was disappointment, and not bitterness.

It would take both time and experience for me to come to the conclusion that I was better off without these grapes in my diet. Fortunately, the times have changed, and the old music business model is as irrelevant as ever. It’s being replaced by modern avenues, thanks to the internet and some culture changes.

Today, very few people have grapes. The older artists who are super-huge have some grapes that they like. Others get the grapes that are less desirable.

As for the rest of us, there is a banquet of fruit at our feet that is easily within reach. We might not get the grapes, but we get so much more, and it is satisfying in its own way. I’m certainly happy with it.