I wrote most of this piece towards the end of my stay on Maui for the Institute of Hawaiian Music. I’m just now getting around to finishing it. – Nov. 23, 2013.
The Meat Grinder of Real, Live Music
April 2, 2013 ~ The Institute of Hawaiian Music at the University of Hawai’i Maui College is a music program that focuses on the traditional music of Hawai’i, teaching students like myself through Hawaiian language and culture, hands on playing experience, and opportunities to learn from professional musicians.
Looking back, I see all the great lessons that the IHM has taught me. For instance, when my band was on stage without enough practice or staring into the jaws of a crappy sound system or trying to meld musically with people whose styles and personalities don’t mix, all I could think was: “Boy, this sucks.” But I sure did learn from those experiences. Without going through the school of hard cracks I would still be in the dark, wondering what it’s like to plug into a huge sound system when your instrument cable is live (*KA-BOOM!*) or how out-of-tune a harmony vocal part can be before anybody notices (or says anything). These are things a musician only understands once they’re experienced first hand. Learning from others’ mistakes can take you a long way, but at the end of the day you really have to be in the hot seat yourself to “get it.”
Of course, I didn’t learn just from the bad moments. We learned much from our successes too. Having the crowd go nuts after a certain song or being treated to a super-fancy meal after the gig by the venue gave us reference points to shoot for again and again. Those positive experiences helped us gauge our success at each gig.
Hands down, the most important thing the IHM offered was a chance to play a lot of “real music” for an engaged, live audience. (As opposed to an uninterested restaurant audience.) A musician can practice ten hours a day in the bedroom and record videos to post on Youtube without ever experiencing the biggest and best part of music: performing. Those hours behind doors are fantastic for teaching you a certain set of skills and honing your chops, but nothing compares to actually stepping up for an off-the-cuff solo in front of a crowd of people.
The weird thing is that over the course of my time in the Institute I feel like I didn’t do much “practicing.” All my time was been spent in class or working on songs in a group for various gigs. Rarely did I have a chance to sit down and run scales for hours. I even thought for a while that I was losing my “chops.” The speedy Eric Johnson licks I could whip out easily before I went off to IHM were now a stretch. And maybe they still are. But what I lost in technical chops is nothing compared to what I’ve gained in music.
Before the many gigs I played for the IHM, I was focused on one purpose: playing notes. After playing too many gigs to count I’ve learned how to use my skills for playing music and bringing joy to the audience. As an ‘ukulele player I have learned to do many things to complement the music and not step all over it. In a nutshell, I began to learn my role as a musician. Now I know what that means. Here is just a sample of some of the things that come to mind:
- Play in the gaps, not on top of the vocalist.
- Don’t copy what the other ‘ukulele player is doing. Find your own “thing.”
- Play strong rhythm if the band is lost.
- Play loose arpeggios and fills if it’s not.
- Sing harmony if you can.
- Don’t sing harmony if you can’t.
- Smile, even if things suck.
- Smile when things are great.
- Smile if things are somewhere in between.
- Practice with your band. A lot.
- Smile some more.
- Never lose your stride. Play through mistakes – no exceptions.
- Remember the words whenever you are singing.
- If you forget the words, play a solo.
- Don’t play while other people are sound checking.
- Be prompt. If you’re late, you should be running towards the stage with an instrument in one hand and a cable in the other!
- Chatter with the audience, tell a joke, the story behind a song.
- Build relationships with your fans no matter how “small time” you think you are. They will support you.
- Think before speaking. Just because you are in the spotlight doesn’t mean everything you say is guaranteed to be light, funny, or playful.
- Wear appropriate clothing for the gig. When in doubt, long pants instead of shorts.
- Play the verses in the correct order and don’t take a solo when there is someone dancing hula for a song.
- Make a set list and have a few backup songs.
All of these things have been etched into my brain from my time at the IHM. I had an inkling of some of them before, but now they are second nature. Having feedback from highly respected musicians at every gig helped me hone in on what I needed to improve and what I was doing right. These lessons and experiences have helped improved my musicality. I now see that simple experience was the missing factor all these years. Without the time on stage, in the meat grinder of real-life music who knows where I’d be now.
Practice is great, but performing is the real deal. Get out there and play!