Saturday, September 14, 2013

Performance Lessons

Our performance at Piedmont this summer was the most ambitious we've ever attempted in terms of repertoire, length and sound system. The response that night, and in the days following as I saw people around town who'd been there, was terrific. This post is to sum up why I think things went as well as they did.

A performance is more than just making music - it's a kind of enchantment or spell casting - and the setting is important. In this case, our hostess worked very hard on all the details on the setup on a beautiful lawn with a stunning view of the Blue Ridge. Just walking from the parking area down to the tents was a wonderful experience, and I'm sure put people in a great frame of mind. So before we even started playing the enchantment had begun.

Given the responses we got, my sense is a lot of people have often felt assaulted by bands with overly loud sound systems playing music they don't particularly enjoy. Lots of people said to us things about knowing and loving all the songs we played, and that our sound was wonderful. There's a reason, "give the people what they want," is a cliché.

While I didn't use the word "curated", with all it's hipster vogue, our hostess had expressed a love of jazz in general, not just Dixieland, so the tunes we did all illustrated the various threads woven into jazz and as I announced each song I pointed out how they all fit into the overall notion of jazz. I think it also helped that the narration began as soon as the applause for the previous song ended, so that if there was time taken to shuffle music, the audience knew what we were doing next and not left hanging.

We also had a wonderful audience. A number of them are members of a group that arranges for regular house concerts of very high level musicians over the course of the year. I'm convinced we played better than usual because we could feel their appreciation of what we were doing. There was applause after every number, and during the second set when there were slightly fewer people in the audience, the applause got louder and more enthusiastic as that core of music loving people showed themselves. 

We also had more help than usual. Ed ran the sound system, leaving me more brain capacity for narrating, strumming, singing and general band leading. My cousin John helped with the logistics of the setup and by walking around the venue checking how we sounded and being a liaison with the hostess. 

On the purely musical front, I remain convinced part of our appeal as a group is that we have such fun making music and that joy gets communicated to the audience both through the music and our behavior. 

We are also blessed to have some really fine musicians in the group, especially Dick on trumpet and Steve on trombone. In the "Summertime" video I put up, I'd made a bare bones arrangement based on the original piano sheet music and Dick and Steve helped me tweak it into playable form - but everything they're playing was improvised in the moment.

We're also very lucky to have Dave on drums. He was in the Army band and played for the troops in Vietnam back in the day. We only have him on occasions when the venue is large enough to take a full drum kit. He's simply terrific and we play on a higher level when we have him. For the Dixieland tunes he's reading music, but on all of mine he's just playing as he feels.

One thing that was sort of scary to me about this performance was that most of my arrangements were new to the group, and were being tweaked right up to the final rehearsal. I can be a worst case scenario kind of person, and there was a great scope for failure. In the event, though, things went well, and the very newness and freshness of the arrangements ended up being a positive. We weren't "covering" the tunes so much as recreating them in this performance in a new way just for our instrumentation and personality. 

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