Musical Preparation Pt. 1

Let’s talk about preparation, in a musical context.  I believe that there are three distinct areas of preparation that can be addressed: Long-term musical preparation (technique, general repertoire, connections, etc.), gig specific preparation (learning your specific repertoire, prioritizing trouble spots, gathering information about the gig), and finally the preparations you make immediately before the gig (equipment, transportation, meals, and making sure you have a pencil).

So my big bright idea is to make a three part series addressing each area in more detail.  These are all based on my experience and I’d appreciate any criticism you might have for me.  So without further delay, let’s start off with the big one…


 

Long-term Preparation

Or, in other words, all of those years, days, hours, minutes and seconds that you’ve invested into your musicianship.  It can be a tricky thing to pin down.  Sure, you wouldn’t really be prepared for tomorrow’s gig 10 years ago and similarly you might not be prepared now for the gig 10 years from now.  I believe abilities are developed on a continuum and it’s impossible to find the moment where you become competent or even exceptional at a certain skill.  So in preparing at the macro level, one must be especially disciplined and willing to grind through struggles with the expectation that you will become the musician you want to be at that moment (though that’s the catch, the satisfaction never lasts). I can’t stress enough that, as a musician, this kind of preparation is invariably the most important and the most difficult.

So you might have received a first class musical education at a top-notch conservatory.  Experienced educators handed out assignments that addressed the techniques you needed to learn, or your private instructor tailored a lesson for you.  Great, you probably learned a lot and became a better musician.  But at some point the guided instruction had to end.  Now all of a sudden you are alone, the steward of your continuing musical education.  You’ve got this right? You’ve always know that you can improve but if you were like me you probably thought you were a lot better than you actually were.  Sadly, you’ve gotta kill that feeling of competence.

Though, before you can improve, you need to find the chinks in your armor.  You need to feel weak, you need to be exposed, and you need to be seriously critical of yourself.  Simply put, getting better should be hard work, especially if you want this to be your life.  This approach might make some people uncomfortable and it definitely goes against the outsiders belief that being a musician is this constant act of catharsis.  The reality is that, like anything meaningful, it’s a process.  It’s fun, it’s painful, and it changes you.

So how can we learn to be self-critical?  While it can be uncomfortable, it’s actually pretty darn easy.  Try recording yourself in the situations where you think you are proficient.  If you are happy with what you hear you can just move that thing down on your practice priorities and find the next thing.  However, if you are anything like me, you’ll will probably be shocked by a lot of little things going on.  Since we generally can hear our biggest mistakes in an actual performance, the things that stand out are the details (tone, articulation, feel).  These details are the things that separate the great players from the good.  Everybody makes mistakes and they are often recorded, but the best players are still in control and aware of what they are trying to do and how it should sound.  They are proficient and prepared.  Recording yourself can illuminate the areas that need more control.  You are going to play anyway, so you might as well hit the little red button while you do it.

Finally the best ways to expose yourself are listening and playing in new situations.  This is where the people who skipped school and went on the road and just played should have the advantage over us college snobs.  Listening and playing are pretty dependent on each other so I will treat them as a single activity.  Chances are if you can’t just show up to a gig and know the standard language, repertoire, and history of whatever genres you are playing, you are not prepared to play them professionally.  Now if you have good technical skills and a good ear you might do okay in pretty much any situation, but ironically that ability comes from having played and listened in many situations beforehand!

So let’s assume you have decent skills but no deep knowledge of a genre/gig.  You first have to be honest with yourself and admit that maybe you don’t know jazz or rock or whatever as much as you’d like to.  That’s always where it starts, then start listening.  Listen to records, go see concerts, read about it in online.  Just do your homework. Then play along, whether it’s with recordings or maybe you can find some low-pressure groups that can handle your lack of experience and if you are really lucky you could land a gig that you aren’t qualified for and get paid to learn.  Though there is the possibility of falling on your face (which won’t be fun) I can’t recommend it enough.  Either way, if you are diligent and continue listening and playing you will quickly move into a level of proficiency.  Now, the trick is to not stop there.

We can see that our musical lives should be in a constant state of flux.  Certainly we will never learn everything we could know, though we can accept that learning and hard work are necessary for any personal or professional advancement.  Even though it will probably never happen, objectively, I want to be the best at what I do.  That frame of mind doesn’t allow me to hide behind my strengths.  I’m not saying to ignore what you are good at or especially that your whole life should be this sadistic journey of mastering all the things you aren’t comfortable with.  On the contrary, follow your interests, use whatever momentum you have,  but just don’t hide from your weaknesses. Come to accept them and, if you so choose, confront them.  In a few months you will have new strengths and new weaknesses you never were aware of.  Either way, you will be more prepared for the reality of being a musician.

-Alex Mack

Never Bend

All,

I could tell you everything about the time between my last post and now, I could tell you about all the breaks that have gone my way and the ones that I didn’t see coming, the branches I didn’t even see bending.

But that’s the point, I’ve been so certain that I can engineer this.  I’ve been confident that I had the skills to control, maneuver, and manipulate the whole thing.  All of it, my career, my interests and the people around me.  While it might be true to some degree, there are just so many things that I’d missed.

So this is me accepting a different perspective.  It’s been there all along, and it’s finally forced itself on me.  My new way of looking at it all is that there is no guarantee of success for me and in accepting that, I can let go any idea of impending failure as well.  I just know that they are both real and they are both out there.

So all that being said, the last few months have been an experience.  All that weight on the branch finally caused it to snap and I suddenly find myself in a completely different place.  Professionally and personally there has been a storm of success as well as failure.  It’s funny that I think these are the times in my life I dread living through but, in retrospect, are my defining moments.  It is in these times of great reduction and growth, like a fire ripping through a forest, that everything is stripped to the bone and the ground becomes visible again.  Immediately, you know yourself and you know what you can become.

So here I am, a little different.  On a new branch, a little leaner.


Okay, anyway enough of that stuff.  Let’s get back to business.  Since it’s really been so long since I’ve updated you all, I’ll give you a condensed version of what’s been going on career-wise .  This is not an exhaustive recap, but there are two main things that I have been spending time on:

-a guitar and flute duo (there is a lot to go over with that and in the future we will probably have another website up so I’ll give more information later)

-I’ve found my way into Lonely Street Productions.  I just recently did a show with them at the Palms Theatre in Mesa and it looks like there could be more to come in the next few months.  Needless to say I’m excited about the performance opportunities and I really like the people I’ve worked with. Oh and I’ll put some photos up from my “British Invasion” gig.

Also, I’ve capitulated (again) and found myself on some social media sites.  I’m not going to link to them, but you can find those yourself.

All right, so I’m back and I’ll be keeping you updated from now on.

-Alex Mack
Prodigal Son of this Blog

The Major Scale

This is where it all starts.  Well, maybe rhythm is where it all starts, but if you consider the basic elements of music to be rhythm, melody and harmony, the major scale is the best formula for understanding 2 of those elements.  See the major scale is a formula.  At it’s most technical level it is an organization of sound derived from the harmonic series, or at least the harmonic series has given it context.  But let’s, for a moment, take the major scale for granted.  Assume that it is beyond reproach and that questioning it’s value lands you in a dungeon where you are left to waste away until you confess to your crime and are…

Oh, hello there.  What were we talking about?

Ah yes, the MAJOR SCALE. So, this thing that we will for a moment, take for granted, is essentially the foundation of our entire musical awareness.  It might not make much sense now, but chords and scales should be synonymous and pretty much every song we love is made up of chords and scales (plus rhythm).  Let’s move on.

There are seven notes, in the major scale and they are derived from this simple formula:

Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half

These indicate whether the distance from one note to the next is a whole step i.e. C to D (whereas C to Db or C# is a half step) or a half step i.e. E to F or B to C. This is worth remembering now, though eventually you won’t even have to think about it when you play. But conceptually, it is fundamental information.

Now, knowing there are 12 total notes and remembering that the distance between B and C as well as E and F is a half step, we can easily figure out any major scale (and more!)

Let’s use G as our root.

Now we can lay it out several ways, but let’s take just note names without regards to sharps (#) or flats (b) and determine that using our formula.  This way we get a general idea of what notes we will be working with before altering them based on whether their intervalic relationship meets up with our major scale formula.

So here they are, unadjusted:

G A B C D E F G

These could very well be the correct notes. But having written this all out in an attempt to educate would lead me, if I were the student, to believe there is something that needs to be changed…

Anyway, remember our formula and the rules about which notes are already half steps and apply the test.

G to A = Whole

Why? Because it starts on G and skips G#/Ab and lands on A. So from the root (or starting note) it travels two half steps or simply put a whole step.

A to B = Whole

Check!

B to C= Half

Here is the first instance of a note name changing without a sharp or flat and also being made from a single half step. But fortunately it checks out with our formula.

C to D = Whole

Check.

D to E = Whole

Check.

E to F = Whole 

Nope, it’s a Half. So what does it mean for us? Well, E to F is a half step and according to our formula, at this point (the 6th to 7th degree) should be a whole step. So the easiest way to fix this is by adding an extra half step on to the which will now be come F#.

So E to F# = Whole

Check.

Now the final note, the 7th degree will return to the root a half step away.  So in this case it is already done for us.

F# to G = Half

Finally, we have our G major scale

G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G

Now we can continue to apply this formula to all notes and the intervalic relationships will remain the same.  The pitch and note names will be different but it will still sound like the major scale.

But wait, there is more!

Once you know how to derive the major scale you now know how to create every chord, every natural minor scale and mode of the major scale.  All you have to do is take that formula and start in a different place.  But I can’t/won’t teach you everything from this post (a man’s gotta eat) and I can also imagine this might not be the subject to describe in a post.

But, if you are interested in learning more about scales and chords and how we use these things every day to create music, I can certainly give you the tools you need in private, personalized lessons.  Whether it’s guitar, mandolin, pedal steel, or any other instrument the theory of western music still applies and that’s why it all sounds so good when we play together!

Thanks for listening,

Alex Mack
Superintendent of this website

Workin’ Man Blues

“It’s a big job gettin’ by with nine kids and a wife…”
Wait, WHAT?!?!

Sorry, that has absolutely nothing to do with my life but I will consider that I’ve been working on things in the last day or two so I can get this site going a little stronger.  If you check around the different menus you will see a new Pedals section where I am working on adding pictures and short audio demos of each of my (better) pedals.  Check it out, they look cool and sound even better.

Also, sticking with my earlier stated plans of adding more content, there are three short “Classical” pieces played on my nylon acoustic uploaded in the Recordings section.  Heavy classical players will laugh and scoff at me I’m sure, but it’s a sound that I am developing and I really enjoy the reading aspect of classical music.  I feel that very little is left up to choice compared to jazz or any other pop genres (I can hear classical players and jazz players now scoffing at me) so it’s a nice challenge and it sounds legitimate to me.  For now I’ll cool it with the classical stuff (plus my nails are getting long enough and people are starting to stare, so I need to get this over with) and start working on adding a few more steel string acoustic demos and eventually move on to electric tracks here in the near future.  The gears are turning!

Oh and tomorrow afternoon I believe there should be my first online lesson posted.  I’m covering a very basic musical topic in depth and I’d like to think of it as a little teaser and promotion for the lessons that I offer.  Definitely more to come in that area too.  So keep checking in and I promise to keep you updated on whats going on in my world and try to give you some things to actually check on the next few weeks.

Just a little outside noise,

Alex Mack
Featured D.J. of this website

Been a Long Time…

Hello there,

I feel kind of pitiful posting these things and every time apologizing for not posting anything lately. Anyway, who cares?

This is my update.  Let’s see, where did I last leave off…Ah yes.  We were just ramping up rehearsals for The Lone Sum’s eventual performance at Strongman Beerfest on April 19th.  While I am proud of our getting everything together in time and confident in our ability to present a nice musical product, I was completely disappointed in the event itself.  Certainly I am not one to comment or criticize the promotional aspects of anything, I am a horrible promoter myself.  So it’s unfair of me to complain about the attendance, by vendors and guests not my business in any way shape or form.  BUT, the implementation of the festival was, objectively, horrible. I won’t go into too many details but when you’ve finally managed to get yourself excited to climb up on a completely uncovered stage in the middle of the afternoon in Arizona and the power generator goes out at least (I can’t remember with the sun stroke…) three times during your set, it’s something of a letdown. We played well considering, but it certainly is not one of the gigs I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Fortunately since we had some momentum going we were booked by the bands leader at the Record Room in Scottsdale and that was a much more pleasant experience! We had friends and family there to play for and it was on a nice cool night.  The quality of the performance was good and more importantly I want to play again with them.  So all in all something positive.

Not much else has happened on the performance side lately, but I was able to begin teaching lessons at SNAP so I’m looking forward to developing my instruction skills and also help some people learn to better love and understand music.  Again if you are interested in lessons, check out my lessons page here.

 

Well, I’ll keep this post shorter than usual(?).  I’ve got some new gear that I will be showing off soon and I’m working on developing some teaser lessons to share as well.  So keep checking in and I will keep you updated with anything worth…dating.

 

-Alex
Lord Commander of this Blog

Tuning Up

It’s been a few weeks since my last post and it sure seems like it flew by fast.  Recently, I’ve been playing with VYT and their production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with music by Michael Valenti . A few things about it; I can only dream of someday being as naturally talented as the [child] actors are at this stage in my life and also the production is very nice (I always think a small theater is the best test of companies skills and VYT doesn’t disappoint ).  That being said, what a horrible, horrible, horrible bunch of music.  You’ve probably never heard this version before and I am certainly aware of the possibility of my (and probably everybody’s) bias towards the Disney version which this is not.  Anyway, I don’t have a problem with most of the lyrics and some of the melodies are quite nice, it’s a short show and there are only so many themes and ideas that can be introduced.  The problem is, harmonically and sonically it is so abhorrently…generic.

You want harmonic cliches?

It’s got ‘em.

How about a overused chromatic “incidental music?”

It’s got you covered.

Surely there couldn’t be a horrible misuse of instrumentation though?

Well, when the harp is a more necessary instrument than the bass (oh wait, it can be a cello if you want) AND you have a full part for an electric guitar, you’ve got problems.

Again, I think VYT does a great job, the kids are supremely talented and it’s a great story, funny too.  I just know that as a musician, things don’t have to be challenging to be interesting, they just have to be appropriate and fit the needs of the story. The music here seems so forced and hastily written, which is evidenced by whole numbers in my book being written in completely incorrect keys, missing rests to go with a general heap of copyist slop on every page.

Perhaps the orchestra’s part is wonderful, we all just couldn’t read what was written.  Oh well…still had fun.

Also, this weekend is the Strongman Beerfest and I’ve been working really hard with The Lone Sum guys to get a show together for the festival.  Today we had a great rehearsal and I’m really looking forward to playing! It’s a really awesome feeling once you are past the rehearsing stage of any project and you can just start performing.  In the deepest darkest parts of preparation I always seem to forget that feeling of joy I get when I’m playing something that’s good and I’m comfortable with.  Anyway, I will definitely have a recap of that show coming up in the near future.  Oh, and it looks like we’ll also be playing April 26th at the Record Room on Scottsdale Rd. in Old Town.  But let me confirm that in the next couple of days.

Well take care everybody keep checking in and I hope to get some more “stuff” added to the site in the near future!

 

-Alex Mack
Theatre Critic (of this site)

Have I Been Busy!(?)

Hi Internet,

How does one read that title? It is true that I’ve had more days out of my house actually doing something than I usually do.  Whether or not it’s productive busyness well, it’s too soon to tell.  I’m still getting ready for Strongman Beerfest with The Lone Sum and I’ve got some more musical theater gigs coming up but all in all I should have plenty of time to continue working on my brand, speaking of which check out my Commercial Scores section under my media section, I had a lot of fun doing them and I hope I can get things going in the right direction with some real commercial scoring at some point down the road.

Anyway, not much work here, no steady gigs, no lessons at the moment and quite frankly, I don’t get it.  This is not me griping about people not hiring me or noticing me or whatever.  It’s about people being flakey when you are honest to them.  I must not have the gene that allows me to lie about my abilities AND feel comfortable screwing up a gig.  For example, If you asked me to play your wedding, believe me when I say that I understand the importance of that day for you.  Bad omens aside, I’m sure that if I was butchering Pacobel’s Canon it wouldn’t entirely ruin your big day but I think it’s important to note that it would absolutely ruin mine.  I care about what I do, I abhor failure, but also in many ways I fail everyday.  So if you ask me to play something that I honestly can’t play in time for the gig, I won’t lie.  If I could refer you to somebody else, I would.  If you came to me and said, “Alex, really love your work.  I’ll give you $1000 to play my birthday party this weekend.  Oh yeah, I’d really love it if you played the entire works of Andres Segovia.”  Uh oh. I’d be forced to make a counter offer: I don’t have that in my repertoire and it would be impossible to figure it out by this weekend but I do have a lot of blah blah blah and I can also play 45 minutes of blah blah blah.  If it doesn’t work, it’d never work. Right?  Don’t take my honesty as anything but honesty.  If instead of Andres Segovia, you asked for Neil Sedaka I think we could definitely figure something out. I don’t doubt the abilities that I have.  This is all in the interest of full disclosure, the more there is of me on this website the more you know what I can do.  Even I forget what I can do from time to time, so this is good practice for me.  I think the bottom line is that I can only do what I can and I’m working to do what I can’t.  If you know anybody that is doing anything more than that, please forward their info to me, I have some questions.

 

Hey, as I sit here in my room surrounded by walls I figured instead of a picture I’d upload an audio recording of Hello Walls written by Willie Nelson and popularized by Faron Young.  Though, it’ll be known as that song I did from now on…I bet even Willie would tell me I could have it.  Oh well.  Enjoy

Let’s all stick together,

-Alex Mack
The Sheriff of this Blog