Category Archives: Musicians’ Life

Learning From The Best

Writing this in my Jakarta hotel room, just after my first rehearsal for our 2nd leg of the David Foster & Friends (DFF) Asia Tour. It was quite a long rehearsal (6 hours), but we covered almost everything in one session. That’s a tough feat for anyone but here’s what I observed about the way things get done with a top international act like this.

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The band (L-R): Boh Cooper, Andy Peterson, John ‘JR’ Robinson, me & Jamie Wilson.

The first thing that struck me when I first played with these guys last year (for the 1st leg) was their attention to detail. Everything is performed in the right place, with the correct tempo, with the exact note-lengths (nothing held too long or too short), with the proper insinuations, and at the required dynamic volume. So although it was a relatively small band, it sounded big and tight!

Your ‘sound’ plays such an important part in a gig like this. No keyboard ‘factory’ patches, please! You make sure your sound is accurate, fat and impressive. I guess that’s the secret ingredient that makes a small band sound big.

Another key was preparation, right from the person who prepared all the charts to the musicians who all did their homework BEFORE coming in to rehearsal. With everyone knowing (roughly) what they were supposed to play, rehearsal became a ‘sharpening tool’ rather than a time to ‘learn stuff’.

Common courtesy is also very apparent in the way everyone always has a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ before and after every request made. There’s never a show of egos or tempers flaring although some of the band are certified music legends. Believe me, the number of local upstarts I’ve seen ‘losing it’ only prove that empty vessels DO make the most noise!

I talked about dynamics earlier but let me share something that happened during rehearsal. We were rehearsing a famous ballad right in the midst of a long grueling session, right about the time where it’s not closer to the beginning then it is to the end. Kind of like when you’re in the middle of a marathon where the adrenalin has worn off, and the finish line is nowhere in sight. Autopilot takes over and you’d be forgiven for going thru the motions, and this is a song that ‘everybody knew’. All of a sudden Mr. Hitman himself stops the music, and coolly says, “play with some dynamics, you m#&$*$!*”. Now, this had his Canadian dry humor dripping all over it, but the message was clear, and we never went into autopilot again. Not even during rehearsal!

Time! Now there’s another commodity that’s so treasured with these international acts. A 1pm rehearsal means we start playing at 1pm. I often wonder how come they can do this and yet most Malaysians just can’t? Is it really in our culture to be late for everything? Plus, there is hardly any time wasting. I found this next phrase quite amusing,

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Mr. Foster displaying his Bill Evans chops during one of our ‘long’ breaks.

“OK guys, let’s take a long 10 minute break”.

10 minutes? Long??!

Here’s another interesting story. Before one of our shows in Genting last year, we were talking & joking about mistakes that happen during shows and how some bandleaders impose a fine on mistakes. So I casually mention how some of our local musicians offer to pay ‘up front’ for their ‘mistakes’ even before the show started. The buoyant mood quickly shifted into annoyance, as these 3 phrases quickly followed:

  • “Obviously they didn’t prepare hard enough!”
  • “How can anyone do a show with an attitude like that?”
  • “I hate musicians like that, cos it makes us ALL look bad!”.

Talk about a change of perspective!

So that was a little glimpse of what happens behind the scenes at a DFF show. The funny thing is, it’s not just your playing skills that determines if you did a good job. Of course it helps that you have some skill on you, but it’s the other stuff I write about above that possibly earns you that second call. I guess that’s what differentiates the ‘1st call’ guys from all the others.

Maybe that’s what they call ‘professionalism’?!

Someone in the band commented, “If musicians came to the show, they would probably think this was an easy gig; but I think there are only a handful who would be able to pull it off.”

I’d certainly like to think so. 🙂

 

* Pic on top of page is me with keyboardist Boh Cooper, who is also MD to Peter Cetera. Top man, top musician!

 

David Foster & Friends has 2 shows in the Java Jazz Festival and another 2 days in the Motion Blue Club in Jakarta. We then move on to do shows in Bangkok & Tokyo.

Ready To Play?

Over the last few years, we have consciously made an effort to include new, young talented musicians and singers into the projects we do here at Cranky Music. Some have done extremely well while there have been a few who, shall I say, failed to impress.

Fortunately (or unfortunately?) a lot of the projects we do, whether they be studio or ‘live’ productions, are often rather ‘high profile’ with very little room for errors. For example, two of the live concerts we did last year were recorded for album release and another two were for international Heads of States. So as you would imagine the pressure can be a little intimidating even if you’ve been in the industry for some time. But since one of our goals here at Cranky Music is to develop and introduce new blood into the music scene, we go ahead and do it anyway albeit with a dose of caution thrown in. In this industry you are only as good as your last project.

Here’s what I’ve observed about the ones who thrive and do well.

They Come Prepared

3 of the 4 ladies of Crinkle Cut.
3 of the 4 ladies of Crinkle Cut. Came well prepared for their recording

Without exception, this is probably the one quality that all who did well possessed. They all did their homework prior to the very first recording/rehearsal. All of them already worked out their parts, prepared to the best of their ability and performed what was expected of them. When people do their homework, all that was needed was to tweak it here and there to make the music a little better. I even know of a few musicians who called their older friends who had worked with us to find out what rehearsal was like; so they knew beforehand what to expect in terms of pace, communication and our customary style of work.

They Learn the Material

This one’s almost the same as the point above except that it pertains more to the music at hand. As much as most of these young musicians are skilled, some of them might not be too familiar with a particular artiste’s repertoire or music genre. You would then really need to know the songs and the melodies beforehand. Contrary to what many might think, rehearsal is NOT the place where you learn the music. It’s where we polish what we already know. You learn your parts at home! Nuff said!!

They Mark Their Music

Another good practice of competent young musicians is the habit of marking whatever changes we work out during rehearsals. Stuff like changed chords, transpositions, added repeats, deleted bars and ‘where not to play’ are better noted on the music. With all the things that go on during a live concert, one would be hard-pressed to recall every single change that was made at rehearsal. Plus the fact that often we have up to thirty songs to do in a span of 3 days, so unless you have an elephant’s memory…

18-yr-old Marcus Leong (2nd from left), playing with the 'big boys'.
18-yr-old Marcus Leong (2nd from left), playing with the ‘big boys’.

Personality Matters. Get Along or Learn How to Play Nice

When a band works on a project, we spend quite a bit of time together… more so if we’re rehearsing for TV shows or going on tour. A typical TV shoot would involve more offstage waiting time than actually playing music. So everyone has really got to get along with each other. I recall an instance when we had a 2-week TV recording stint and by the 2nd or 3rd day, this ‘new guy’ was already getting on the nerves of the rest of the band. Certainly not a nice situation to be in!

 

 

I suppose all these ‘tips’ would come to naught if you never got ‘the call’ in the first place, right? Well the best way to get noticed is to work on your craft. Period! I’ll say one thing about all the young musicians and singers who have walked through the doors of our studio… they have ALL paid (and still paying) their dues. They have been practicing a lot, and it shows. I don’t think we’ve hired anyone based on anything but hearing them play. So to all you young musicians, get out there and PLAY.

One last thing! Forget what people say about it being a monopoly among the ‘established musicians’. If you’re good enough, you will be heard soon enough. However, the opposite also applies! So if you haven’t got ‘the call’, just work harder!

 

 

[Pic at the top (from left to right): Jae Sern, Fly, Joel, Aubrey, Derrick & Steve. This was Derrick & Joel’s first gig with the Cranky Music band]