Say yes to everything.
I try to remind myself of this when I am offered musical work with new people. It happened this month when I was contacted to play bass for the musical Legally Blonde in Sarnia. I said yes even though I don’t consider myself a great reader. When I got the a copy of the bass part and started to look through it I wondered if I had bitten of a bit more than I could chew. I was relieved when I few more experienced theatre bassists chimed in with comments like “busy book”. I’m glad it wasn’t just me.
I spent a lot of time with the book heading for the first read through with the band and it went well. That’s the nature of theatre work. There is not often a lot of rehearsal time. The work is done at home. Usually I tackle a theatre book by going to the back of the book first. You’ll usually find the walk out and bow music has a lot of the themes from the show. The run is over now and I’m quite happy with how things went for me but it took a lot of work to get to that point. I’m glad I said yes! If I’m honest there were times I had to focus and count but there were other times when I was just reading a musical sentence without counting or analyzing.
There have been lots of moments like that over the years since I returned to playing bass. Every potentially uncomfortable and challenging experience always makes the next musical moment better. There are some jazz musicians I play with whose depth of musical knowledge is the tip of the iceberg compared to mine. But saying yes to those gigs makes other music easier to play and be also makes for a more creative bass player. Playing big stages makes the house concert easier even though when I started playing house concerts having the audience that close was a bit uncomfortable. I played on a record with two great Canadian songwriters, Lynne Hanson and Lynn Miles. I’d worked with Lynne Hanson a lot for show but first time working with her in a recording studio. Lynn Miles I had never met until I arrived at the studio. We also recorded direct to tape! No pressure there at all. After saying yes to that record every recording session and live show has been easier than ever.
So say yes to everything, especially if it makes you uncomfortable.
There have been a couple of odd situations in the last few years that I am now trying to decide how to handle in the future. For example, I was asked to play with an artist at a conference. I learned the tunes, went to a rehearsal and at the last minute was informed that the bass player was available after all. As far as I know there were no concerns about my ability to do the gig.
This year I was told a month or so before a gig that the music director had asked to use a different bass player. This is a booking I had for almost a year. In this case the explanation was that the guest artists had been working with their own bass player and felt that the performance would be more intuitive than using a different bassist. It was essentially a chart reading gig of classic pop tunes. Not a lot of intuition required. The good news is I was able to pick up a two week theatre run so that lessened the blow. Although you can’t help feeling like your ego had been dented. Dented by other musicians in your community. I have another booking with that group a year from now but I’m left wondering if that will happen.
I find myself between a rock and a hard place on issues like this. I talked about this with one of my musical mentors. His view is that if there is a contract in place then that should be honoured. There is no union contract for any of my gigs these days. The contract is verbal or by email confirmation. So that’s where this gets messy. Do I tell someone that if they are going to cancel a long standing booking then a compromise of some sort should be agreed to? Compensation perhaps? What do I do in a situation where I am asked to sub in but the first call bassist decides they now want the gig? I believe if I tell someone I’m not available and the artist finds another player then the gig is gone. I can’t expect to get it back if I’m now available for that date. I feel like if I push on any issue like this that I may alienate someone who may hire me in the future.
The best example I have of how to do things right comes from Lynne Hanson, an Ottawa based artist I’m lucky to work with from time to time. She offered me a couple weeks worth of gigs in the Spring. This was around the same time we were planning a trip to Scotland for a family wedding. I wanted do the shows and the wedding but it would not have been possible. The risk you run when turning down work is that an artist might hire that person for the next gig. Lynne was great. She gave me time to think about what I would do and she also said she would begin to look for someone else and if she found someone we would talk again and make a decision. In the end I went to Scotland. I also know that when Lynne books you for a gig, even if her first call ends up being available, she’s not going to switch the players.
What are your thoughts?
It’s closing time. Today I have 2 more shows at the Grand Theatre for Joni Mitchell – River. I’m glad I have a few gigs booked in November and December that I have to prepare for otherwise I’d be left with a big hole to fill. There’s nothing like an entire month of work for a musician. Especially when the venue is just down the street.
One of the highlights of my summer was playing the Home County Music & Arts Festival and the Kemptville Music Festival with Lynne Hanson as part of her band The Good Intentions. I’ve played the Home County Festival several times over the years so it was great to be back there again sharing a stage with Lynne and the wonderful guitarist Dan Artuso. Lynne writes some great music with Murder Ballads that are full of confessional lyrics and the tunes are great to play. I get to do a lot of different musical things but I would have to say my favourite musical experience is to work with songwriters who have something to say. There’s a new song we played that brought a tear to my eye on a couple of occasions. Continue reading
Recently I had the chance to add a double bass part to a mobile game. Big Blue Bubble’s game My Singing Monsters has literally millions of users around the world. My son, Sam Clark, has been working for Big Blue Bubble for almost a year as their in house audio engineer. As the commercial says it really is priceless to work on a session with my son for a game with as high a profile as My Singing Monsters.
Here’s a teaser for the new monsters in the game. The monster that uses my double bass track is the one playing his tongue. Hilarious.
This image showed up in my Facebook news feed. I don’t know the source of the image or who put the list together. It’s intended for musicians but it applies to all walks of life.
January was an interesting month. Compared to my productivity and practice in December it was almost a lost month. I know that’s a bit of an over statement but sometimes it can be hard to overcome my inertia and sit down behind the music stand, plug in and get things done.
There can be magic moments when you play music. It might be a special venue or a moment when you feel like you can do no wrong when you are playing. Both can be quite rare especially the latter! Other times it’s the people you meet and get to play with. I’m lucky enough to work with singer/songwriter Emm Gryner from time to time. I’ve lost count of how many albums she has released under her name and to watch her perform on stage really is one of those magic moments.
Last year Emm and Chris Hadfield released a version of Space Oddity. Emm played the piano parts and NASA sent those to the International Space Station where Chris recorded his vocals. Emm played in Bowie’s band for a time and he gave permission for them to release the track.
So one of my magic moments for this year was playing Space Oddity on a live show with Emm and Chris.
In the third and final part of my Q & A, John tells us what makes a good bass player and a few other topics. There’s a bit of gear talk as well. I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview. I’ll do more of these in the future and get other bassists takes on similar questions if they are willing.