Archive for March, 2011


Three Shows In…

I have to say that we’re finally getting our “tour-legs” under us. Last night’s show at the Crystal Bay Casino felt like that magical thing was happening that was happening last tour. And we totally nailed “Mound.”

Tom Cleary has his own blog where he talks about learning Mound: http://www.tomclearymusic.com/#/events/learning-new-tunes-for-the-march-11-tour/

It’s interesting to get everyone’s take on learning this beast. I thought I’d write about my own process.

I was given a studio recording of the song, and later a live recording, and four pages of hand written sheet music that is the score for the middle section. The score includes the guitar, piano and bass parts as well as, minimally, the drum parts.

While I was pretty adept at reading for the trumpet and piano when I was a kid, I’ve never read music for guitar and so for me there’s a missing piece that is the eye-to-hand thing that happens when you read music all the time. So I have to look at every note and figure out where it is on the guitar. And beyond that, since there are various places to play the same notes on the guitar, I also have to figure out where on the neck to play things.

This is a very slow process but in a way it has the advantage of forcing me to memorize the part rather than be dependent on the sheet music.

So the first thing I did was to modify the media I was given to make it more “friendly.” I took the PDF files of the sheet music and edited them in Photoshop to create a “guitar-only” version of the score. This reduced the number of pages from four to one and made it a lot easier to follow.

I then took the corresponding section of the recording and using some digital recording software first applied some filtering to isolate the guitar parts as much as possible, and then forced it to fit on “the grid.” This accomplished a few things: I could slow that part of the recording down (very helpful!). I could also overlay a metronome onto it to clarify some of the rhythmic stuff. It also allowed the measures of the recording to be numbered in a way that corresponded to the sheet music, so that if I was working on measure 37 I could loop that measure in the recording and play along while reading the sheet music for the same measure.

Also, because I’m not a reader for guitar music, I notated all of the chords on the sheet music. The entire part is mostly three note chords and so I notated them with interpretations of the structures that recalled certain positions in my brain.

For example, one such chord has an A on the bottom, a C more than an octave up from that, and an Eb above that. You could interpret those notes as an A diminished chord, but the form that I’m using is more like an inverted F7 without the root, so that’s how I notated it.

Once everything was notated I started the task of committing everything to muscle memory. This is a very tedious process of taking two chords at a time and repeating them ad nauseum until the movement between them becomes second nature. Then I tie the whole thing together by starting with the first two chords, repeating them over and over, then adding one chord at a time until I have a whole “section” under my fingers. Then onto the next section.

Once everything is in the muscles then the challenge is… not over. Now I focus on the sound of each string of chords and how to express through them. That’s always a challenge. It’s one thing to learn and memorize a set of notes, but the extra thing is to take that pre-written piece of music and make it mine; express through it; play it as though I had written it.

Of course that’s just the middle section of Mound. At the same time I had to memorize the lyrics and learn the harmony parts for the verses, AND I had to learn to sing the backup harmonies in 5/4 while playing a guitar part in 4/4! (Still messing that up occasionally…)

Okay, enough about that. I’m in Santa Cruz now. I’m on the bus with the windows open and it’s just lovely.

Eugene

Well last night was the first night of tour and I have to say that it was… ok. I’m my own worst critic of course. We encored with Mound and it was not as good as I had hoped. We were sailing through the middle section and near the end I got lost and couldn’t keep up. It’s like there’s a threshold of how fast I can make each of those chords sound and last night’s tempo was just beyond that threshold. So I have some work to do to get it under my fingers so that the tempo should be irrelevant.

Everything else was pretty good with a few stand out moments. Tom was on fire last night! The crowd was very receptive and responsive to everything we were doing. We got some good feedback on our vocals.

The town was nice even though it was a drizzly day. I recommend The Sustainable Table. Great food all locally grown with vegan or gluten free options for most of the menu items.

Tonight we’re in Acadia, CA at the Van Duzer Theater right on the Humboldt State University campus. I’m blogging from Couple Cups, a nice coffee shop with good breakfast sandwiches and great coffee.

I can’t wait to play Mound again though it probably won’t be tonight. But let me at that b!#@%!!!!

I’m writing from Eugene, OR across from the McDonald Theater. I was in Burlington all last week for rehearsals and I must say that they were great! We’re tackling some of the most complicated of Mike’s originals. I’ve had to memorize pages of sheet music and it’s some of the most complex stuff I’ve ever played. In the beginning of last week it all seemed overwhelming but now that we’ve played these tunes a bunch it seems almost reasonable. Most of the rehearsals were in the evening so I had the days to practice and learn this stuff on my own.

Monday, Mike brought me to his singing teacher. I’ve always wanted to take a voice lesson and this one did not disappoint. I learned a ton of stuff and got lots of questions answered that have been haunting me for years. Her method of singing is all about being as efficient as possible which is so helpful to me. It allows me to sing clearly without blowing out my voice and allows me to hear my voice in the lower registers even when the band is loud. Very cool.

She came to rehearsal on Wednesday to work with the band as an ensemble as well. Not only did it help each of us individually but it got us all thinking on the same page about our vocals so that our inflections and pronunciations are lined up. What a difference! Plus, by putting the emphasis on the vocals the instruments are quieter and geared toward highlighting the vocals.

All in all it was a great week!

We traveled yesterday flying to Portland last night and meeting the bus which took us to Eugene. We’re all well rested and ready to go!!

Fallon Friday!

It was an early day. A car was picking us up at the hotel and taking us to NBC at 10 am but the gear was loaded in early in the morning. We were checking out of the hotel so I had to take everything with me. Of course I had four pairs of pants and a bunch of shirts on hangers plus my knapsack, travel bag and guitar to bring as well. Lots of stuff.

We got to NBC and had to get photographed into their system and we got temporary passes and then got escorted to the Band Room on the sixth floor. This is where we spent most of the day.

Things were happening just behind schedule according to the itinerary so we first got onto the set around 11:30 to do sound and camera checks. They were doing line checks when I got out there (testing the mics for each instrument) and had already finished the drums. Once the line checks were complete we ran the tune twice to get sound levels correct including the levels in the mixing room and the levels of our on stage monitors. Once that was all set we ran the tune two or three more times so they could get “camera blocking” together.

Then we were done. They told us to “take off” until 4:30 so we had about four hours to kill. So we did what you’re supposed to do to kill time in New York: ate and shopped.

Apparently they strike (remove from the set) a bunch of our gear since that’s where the curtain is that Fallon appears from. After we got back we were in the Band Room watching the taping on the big monitor they have back there. The show is shot pretty much in realtime with the commercial breaks taking up what a normal commercial break would take, with a couple of exceptions.

The first exception was the break during Adam Sandler’s interview. During that break they film the little spots that they show during Leno when Fallon says, “Tonight my guests are Adam Sandler, Aziz Ansari, and Mike Gordon. Please watch!” They do about six versions of this.

The second exception is right before the band plays. They have to put all of our gear back out on the set and they have to file in the fans that are in the “Band Bench,” those stands behind the band where people watch. I was anxious to get onto the set and get my hands on the guitar because the set is kept very cold, like 50 degrees or so, and I wanted my hands on the guitar to acclimate it to the warmth of my hands so it would stay in tune.

But when I got to the set I couldn’t get onto the stage because they were filling up the Band Bench with people and I couldn’t get by. Finally I got by and started warming up the guitar. When I fired everything up, though, it seemed WAY louder than it was during the check and I realized that one of the volume knobs on my looper box had been turned way up, so I turned it back down to where I thought it was during rehearsal.

They got everyone into position while I warmed up silently and tuned up the guitar, probably six times, and then I heard, “20 seconds!”

Then The Roots started playing “back from commercial” music. They stopped and Fallon introduced us and off we went!

My first reaction was, Oh no, my guitar’s not loud enough. I had overcompensated the volume control. But it was all being mixed anyway, I just couldn’t hear it as well from where I stood.

When we got to the first chorus there were no harmonies but I was listening to Mike’s voice. The whole stage seemed much louder than rehearsal so I did a quick Valsalva maneuver to reduce the volume to my ears, which worked (the pinch my nose technique to equalize sound pressure). When the second chorus came around and I had to sing I could hear pitch just fine.

I tried to look around and tried to smile. When I looked at Tom during his keyboard solo I could see Fallon watching us and tapping his foot. Instant shot of nerves! When we got to the bridge I tried to look at the studio audience and not focus on the guitar neck because there’s a lot of hand movement during that part and I could have easily stayed focused on the neck.

The third verse has me just strumming open chords behind Mike’s vocal and if my guitar had gone out of tune this is where it’d be noticeable but it was fine. Down the home stretch now! Nothing to worry about except shredding at the end!! :-)

The shredding went fine! How do you fit everything you want to do in eight bars? Very carefully! I tried to be melodic, rhythmic, dynamic, and shreddy, all at the same time. I think it worked.

When we finished it seemed to me that it was good. Mike was smiling. Fallon ran over and shook all our hands. Aziz did too! Then The Roots played for about five minutes. Then they got all of the audience out of there and we were done.

I was home in time to watch. As I was watching the show waiting for our slot I think I got even more nervous than I did waiting to play the show. I had no idea how it was going to be. I felt like I had been really nervous and was worried that it would show. I was worried that the guitar volume was going to be too low. I was worried that what I thought was singing ok was going to be horribly out of tune! But it came on and it was fine. I was psyched that the cameras had missed my Valsalva Maneuver and I was psyched that they had cranked up the guitar in the mix.

All in all it was a very rewarding experience. It’s unbelievable how fast it goes by once you’re on the set ready to go!

I can’t wait until next time! :-)

So it was a pretty long night; a long ride to New York. I had to run some errands (had to buy new pants among other things) so I got on the road late and got to the city late. I was so late that the hotel had canceled my reservation but they were nice and gave me a room.

After I worked all day, the band had rehearsal. It was great. It’s so cool to practice one song for that long. Mike’s been listening to some mixes of our live shows from last tour so his ear is in hyper mode right now so he was paying extra attention to the smallest of details. It’s cool because we dial in the stuff that’s supposed to be tight like vocal harmonies and pitch and phrasing and inflection and it all comes together and gets very polished but then during the jams we just rage! And of course with four minutes to play the jams are very short so it’s like we’ve got eight bars to rage here and another eight bars here. Ready? Go.

Once all that stuff was figured out then we played it and played it and then listened back to the tape and played it again. It’s the way every song should be rehearsed really, if there were enough time.

So then we took a break and got some dinner. And a couple hours later we went back and played it one more time. Okay maybe two. And that’s it. We’ve got it down. And at the end of each time we did the song, or most of the times, there was something to tweak; something to add or change to make it perfect. And it still raged!

I’m not as nervous. In fact I would say that yesterday I was more excited than nervous. Just that little thing that happens in the pit of my stomach. You know that thing… when you’re about to do something you don’t normally do. Something sick. Something big.

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