Music as a Second Language

One evening while watching TV I saw an infomercial advertising guitar lessons. The narrator said how easy the method was and one didn’t even have to learn how to read music, as if reading music was the worst thing on the planet. That’s like telling a child that’s it’s OK to not learn how to read or write, just learn how to speak and everything will be just fine. Aside from the immediate disgust I felt, the whole thing struck me as odd. The guitar is a musical instrument, why wouldn’t someone want to learn the language of music and be part of the whole musical community…you know…violinists, tuba players, singers, pianists, saxophone players, etc. etc.

I run into this all the time with people who play the guitar. They too often look for that short cut or gimmick (tabs) to play their favorite song or favorite guitar lick. They may or may not accomplish their goal but I seldom hear any of these people say they want to be better musicians. In my opinion it’s because of this attitude I constantly hear – “I don’t know how to apply what I know”, “I know all my chords but I’m stuck”, “How did you do that?” or the most common one, “I’ve hit a wall”.

LEARN THE LANGUAGE!!! That’s the path to creative, musical freedom. Granted there are countless, outstanding musical artists who can’t read or write music. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with many of them but to a person, every single one of them surrounded themselves with musicians who can.

I’m aware that music, like any other language, can be complicated, confusing, illogical, tedious and frustrating. The back end though is rewarding, inspiring and simply fun.

In the Pit – “Dancing with the Stars” From A Musician’s Perspective

This season 13 on Dancing with the Stars (DWTS) has really crystalized into what it means to be a studio musician and specifically the guitarist on that show. The music is live and every week we have to perform that music perfectly within very strict time constraints. Most people are not aware of the process and hopefully this blog will shed some light.

I must say this year the producers have been very creative in choosing themes and although this idea of doing shows that follow a theme is not new to DWTS, the variety this season has been fun and very challenging. Stylistically I’ve had to play at least six different genres on electric guitar including pop, rock, Latin, R&B, soul and jazz. The other instruments I’ve had to play include the banjo, ukulele, classical guitar, steel string guitar and arch top guitar. The music I’ve had to read has gone from simple chord sheets to intricate film and Broadway music-black with notes. We’ve gone from movie music, 80’s music, Broadway music to all things Halloween.

During a season we work every Monday and Tuesday. There have been times where we’ve had to have our instruments up and ready to play as early as 7 am. Monday morning. When we arrive we see the printed music for the first time. This is the music that the celebrities and pro dancers have to dance to. We get that same music as mp3s a week prior so we can program our sounds. Obviously every recording has it’s own specific sound that we have to match as closely as possible. The guitar on a Ozzy Osborne recording is not going to sound like the guitar on a Frank Sinatra record. But sound programming is not something any of us has time to do on Monday when the focus needs to be accompanying the dancers. Tuesday is not as pressure packed as Monday but often we are required to play for production numbers. This can be anything from accompanying Lionel Ritchie or Celine Dion to playing a R&B medley or Piazzola tango for the professional dancers.

The basic orchestra consists of 18 musicians and four singers. We run each tune with the performers, fine tuning any tempo or sonic issues. Normally we do three passes for each celebrity/contestant. After that we have a break for lunch, come back and do a dress rehearsal of the whole show, have another break and come back to do the actual broadcast. That start time is 5 pm in Los Angeles for live broadcast to New York at 8 pm. The bottom line is that if you make a mistake there’s no going back to fix it.

As a musician I take a great of pride being able to get into the character of a song. To that point I want to take my hat off to the orchestrators, copyists and last but not least our conductor Harold Wheeler. Never have I been in a situation where the music has been so well prepared and conducted. It’s nice to be in a situation where the people around you are so supportive and give you the best chance to succeed in a very pressure laden situation.

For you gear heads out there, my guitars are: a Paul Reed Smith 513, a Candelas classical, an EF451DLX Takamine steel string, an Ovation ukulele and a banjo from god-only-knows-where. The amp I use is a Fuchs Train-45 and my guitar processor is a T.C. Electronics Nova System. My work space is about the size of the back of a mid-size SUV.