Front Porch

Keeping the Music Alive During the Pandemic

Mike Alvarez

Mike at Rebecca’s, ca. 2015.

The Corona virus has been spreading for months with no sign of abatement in the foreseeable future, especially here in the United States. While there are differing views as to its severity and the necessity of the various measures implemented to cope with it, most would agree that not catching it ourselves and halting its spread to others are desirable outcomes. It has impacted many human endeavors, which are so dependent upon people personally interacting with one another. Even such everyday activities as grocery shopping, visiting with friends, going to the gym, or dining out must be carried out with a precautionary mindset. Whether or not one agrees with precautions such as face coverings and social distancing, they have become the norm for customers entering just about every establishment. Requirements, in fact. The virus has had a devastating effect, not only on the economy but also on the mental health of our communities. Regular life can be difficult enough. People need to recharge and blow off steam during ordinary times. The need to do so is undoubtedly more pressing with the added stresses of staying safe.

Live music in particular has been put on indefinite hold, whether it be in large venues or smaller settings. Highly anticipated major summer tours and events have been cancelled, as have local festivals. Even with the limited reopening of some businesses, the concerns are still present and precautions are still in place. Performers and audiences alike need to be concerned about the risk of potential exposure and spread of the virus. Is the communal experience of a live gig worth it? Many artists have taken to broadcasting their live performances online as a means of keeping in touch with their fans. Such videos have featured soloists as well as entire bands whose individual members broadcast their portion of the performance from the safety of their own separate studio setting. Bass legend Leland Sklar has made a point to post a daily YouTube video from his home where he talks about his storied career and sometimes plays along with recorded tracks. There have even been experiments with drive-in concerts where audience members take in a show from the relatively safe isolation of their own cars. One can only hope that such innovations are a temporary Band-Aid fix, and that normalcy will eventually return. Until such time that it does, it is a sure bet that artists will continue to create new music as well as avenues of delivery for their art. The interaction between performers and audiences is a cherished part of just about every culture, and it is not one we should readily relinquish. The healthy exchange of emotion and energy in both directions cannot be duplicated in any other setting. But until an effective treatment or vaccine is developed and distributed, it behooves us to come up with ways to approximate the experience that is craved by music lovers and artists alike.

There is a sense in which this situation can be regarded as an opportunity. Half of an artist’s workload is in performing live. Most would surely say that it is the most rewarding portion of it. Yet this would not be possible without the cultivation of material to present to listeners. Whether it be composing original music or learning and interpreting a cover song, these things require a great deal of time, energy, and perseverance. And it never hurts for a musician to turn his or her efforts toward improving instrumental and vocal technique. After all, if we have any desire to practice our craft at the highest level, we should feel an obligation to devote the necessary time and energy to achieve a certain standard. And then exceed it. The best practitioners in any field are driven to keep reaching for that next level. At the age of 83, none other than the great cellist Pablo Casals famously said he still practiced for hours every day, “…Because I think I am making progress.” Technical practice and creative composition are best done out of view of an audience. Unencumbered by the pressure to entertain or impress, artists can explore all sorts of possibilities and select which ones work best within the context of their creation or performance. Perhaps the best use artists can make of the current situation would be to take stock of their skills and set goals toward which they can work.

Whatever name I have made for myself as a musician in this town has been as an accompanist and a sideman. I take a great amount of pleasure and pride in being known as an effective team player who can deliver the goods. Not everyone desires the responsibility of being the front man in a band. That role requires a certain personality and mindset that aren’t present in every player. There is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in playing the perfect part in an ensemble with occasional opportunities to take the spotlight as a soloist. It is especially gratifying to be given the freedom to create a part that becomes an integral part of a song. While I’m mainly called to serve as a cellist and vocalist these days, over the years I have also functioned as a keyboardist, guitarist, and bassist. My collaborations have ranged from garage bands, local artists, and internationally notable professionals. I’ve shared the stage and studio with noted local talents like Bridget Brigitte, Michele Shipp, the Latin rock band Paradise, the Jazz Real Trio, and the Bass Clef Experiment, and am currently a member of the Dave Humphries Band. It is with this group that I had the pleasure of backing up Badfinger’s Joey Molland at a recent San Diego Beatles Fair. The instantaneous and far-reaching connections made possible by the internet have made it possible for me to interact with musicians beyond the local sphere, thus opening up opportunities to record and perform at a level much higher than I could have anticipated in years past.

Without a doubt, my favorite kind of music is progressive rock. In its heyday “prog” artists sold truckloads of albums and packed stadiums with fans. Today it’s seen as a kind of throwback genre whose practitioners and listeners are stereotyped as nerdy intellectuals. Yet it lives on. Current bands like Spock’s Beard, Porcupine Tree, and Dream Theater are bands that create fresh, new, and boundary-defying music that rocks. Heritage acts like Yes and Kansas are also similarly active in the studio and on the road. It was my distinct pleasure to have made connections that resulted in my playing with some of the genre’s heavyweights. Erik Norlander is a highly regarded keyboardist and producer whom I befriended online after seeing his band Rocket Scientists perform in Hollywood. He asked me to join him onstage with members of his group at the very first CalProg Festival in 2004, and I subsequently contributed to a couple of his recording projects. One of these was a companion CD to a novel by science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson, which featured performances by John Payne of Asia, David Ragsdale of Kansas, Michael Sadler of Saga, and James LaBrie of Dream Theater. It was quite a special thrill for me to accompany Norlander’s wife, vocal diva Lana Lane, who is my favorite vocalist of all time! Lisa LaRue Baker, a noted Native American keyboardist based in Oklahoma, subsequently asked me to join her studio project band 2KX, whose members and associates include Payne, noted Stick player Don Schiff, and Ryo Okumoto, the delightfully unhinged keyboardist for Spock’s Beard. My cello tracks for the 2KX album Fast and Blue were done in my own living room and sent to the producer online. Keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman once asserted that working in a recording studio should be regarded as a special privilege, but advancing technology makes it possible for industrious talents with limited means to achieve professional-quality results at home. Many of the bells and whistles of a fully equipped recording studio are now available in compact and affordable gear. Consequently, I have been able to create my own original music, largely for my own personal development and entertainment. It exists as demo recordings of varying quality, hopefully improving as my musical and technical skills get better with time and practice. It hasn’t been a straight trajectory, as real life has a tendency to take precedence. Day jobs and family obligations rightfully take priority, but sometimes stress, fatigue, and time limitations result in a short supply of inspiration. In fact, that’s the norm. It’s not hard to spread yourself so thinly that you don’t feel the capacity to reach inside and bring forth a work of art you can be proud of. But if it’s in you, it’s got to come out somehow.

I have opted to err on the side of caution during this pandemic, staying home a lot and restricting my interpersonal contact to a small number of people. Having the luxury to direct my attention to things I never had sufficient time or energy for in the past, I can devote a good bit of attention to creativity for its own sake. I have achieved a basic competence with most of the traditional rock instruments as well as some experience in composing, arranging, and recording my own material. Yet I’m experiencing an odd sensation when I contemplate the blank slate that awaits my creativity. My years as a sideman and accompanist have spoiled me in the sense that I could leave the bulk of the creative effort to someone else, using their material as a foundation upon which to build my contribution. In isolation I become my own virtual band, which means I also assume the roles of songwriter and front man—at least in my head. It’s an interesting challenge, one that I can take on from the safety of my living room, away from the eyes and ears of an audience. So, questions need to be addressed: what do I want to say with my music? Do I even have anything to say? Are my abilities enough to play what I hear inside my head?

Some start with lyrics, and the music gets tailored around the rhythms and rhymes set by the words. For me, it’s usually music first. I take a chord progression, melody, or riff and lock it into a definite arrangement that I find pleasing. Wordless verses, choruses, and bridges are laid down, leaving room for vocals that will not be created until the very end. Oftentimes I will even decide in advance where instrumental solos will fit in (my weapon of choice for this is usually the cello. Because… why not?). It is within these limitations that I craft the lyrics. It forces them to have a certain form and succinctness, which hopefully means they are more effective. I’m hoping that my penchant for putting lyrics off until the end of the process doesn’t mean I regard them as having last priority, though I won’t flat out deny that this is the case. Once I decide upon a topic or direction, the task is to create phrases and melodies that roll off the tongue easily. I like ‘em to rhyme if possible, but I make every effort not to settle on anything that sounds trite or lame. As with many musicians who are primarily instrumentalists, I have all kinds of insecurities about my singing voice. In fact, it took years for me to gain enough confidence to step up to the mic. Prior to that, I was content to use whatever instrument I was playing as a security blanket on stage. While I can carry a tune, I will always have doubts as to my expressive ability as a vocalist. Do I project enough power to properly interpret a song’s words? Do I pay enough attention to their meaning to give proper emphasis? Is my voice interesting enough to hold a listener’s attention? Sometimes the best approach for me is to treat it as just another instrumental track. As with string parts, it’s great fun to layer harmonies to fill out an arrangement.

With his frequent collaborators at the Troubadour Christmas party, 2018. Wolfgang Grasekamp, Alicia Previn, Dave Humphries, and Mike.

Would things sound better if I recruited outside players and singers? It would certainly open things up to interpretation by other performers, which can yield unexpected surprises that would otherwise not be created. For instance, I’m not much of a drummer, but I can at least keep a beat on some decent-sounding digital pads and throw in a few flourishes here and there. A real drummer would have techniques at their disposal that could bring a whole new feel and character to a song. Yet there is also the philosophy that nobody can realize a personal artistic vision quite like the artist him or herself. So long as the technical ability to express oneself through instruments and voice is present, I think this is can be a valid approach, particularly during a pandemic such as the one we are experiencing. Recording artists like Roy Wood, Todd Rundgren, and Prince have recorded complex, multi-layered projects all by themselves and have been met with commercial and critical success. One very important takeaway from being one’s own ensemble is that it reinforces a sense of what it takes to make a band function properly. It needs to be the proverbial well-oiled machine with every part doing its job. No showboating until the proper time and then only to provide the necessary effect. While this is a discipline I have internalized after years of being a gigging and recording musician, it never hurts to have it reinforced in quite this way. It’s all good preparation for the real deal. The late Greg Lake of the legendary group Emerson, Lake and Palmer once said in an interview that “we don’t look at the record as the end product. We look at the live performance as the end product of what we do and what we create. So, we look at a record rather in the same way you might have a check that you make out. It’s not really the money; for us a record is a promise to pay.” We can only hope that such a “payday” will not be postponed for long. Players gotta play and audiences gotta hear it!

To hear some of my solo musical efforts, please go to https://soundcloud.com/bigfiddler1262/

 

 

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