Category Archives: music & life

A Million Little Pains

I have a really bad urge to write right now, but I feel like I’m taking my life into my own hands. Because I have tendonitis in my writing arm. It doubly sucks, because I also rely on that arm to, you know, play piano for a living.

This has happened before. A year ago, I was happily doing writing exercises every day in The Artist’s Way, the brilliant book by Julia Cameron all about reclaiming and discovering one’s own creativity. The number one thing out of that book that often makes the biggest difference for people is the morning pages, which are simply three pages of freewriting (stream-of-consciousness brain spill) done first thing in the morning. I did it for a good eight weeks and loved the opportunity it gave me to unlatch my brain after whatever kind of night of sleep I had. It gave me a chance to start fresh every day, and to even come up with some great ideas for creative projects.

But by the eighth week, I noticed with growing dismay that my morning pages had a constant theme – the pain in my right forearm. It was the result of an injury I got months earlier from wrestling with a sticky mic stand. The pain went from thumb joint all the way to elbow and sometimes a little beyond, and that was all my brain could express in my notebook. It was hard. I had to stop to pause several times and wiggle or massage my hand and elbow, even though I knew I was violating a cardinal rule.

My piano practice suffered too. I could only play short sessions and follow them up with an ice-down. I stopped playing at my favorite open mic for a while, reserving whatever I had left for paid gigs.

And then the morning pages stopped completely. After trying different kinds of pens and paper, switching to typing, writing fewer pages or more slowly, nothing relieved the pain. All I could do was stop.

That’s where I’m at now. After three days of trying to re-introduce morning pages to my routine, I’m once again stymied by another flare-up. I’ve had drugs, ice, heat, chiropractic, massage, reiki, yoga – anything I can throw at it. But no relief, nothing that will have me write comfortably every day.

I easily sound pretentious. There are a billion more things actually worth crying over. I’m not an NHL hockey player with a broken leg or a union electrician with a slipped disc and kids to feed. I’m not a military sniper who at any moment could step on a land mine.

But ask anyone whose living consists of millions of small movements how it feels to live with a small pain that won’t quit unless you do. And it’s the small pains that are the most sinister, because they could mask bigger issues or make you just pissed off enough to throw your commitment out the window completely.

It wouldn’t hurt my arm so much if it didn’t hurt my heart, my soul, my faith in who I am.

I have a friend who is a yoga teacher diagnosed with MS. She inspires me, not because she’s doing full-on yoga and teaching others in spite of her condition, but because sometimes she does have bad days and missed days, and complaints and annoyances like anybody else. She too is bothered by little pains.  And she doesn’t always have the answers to mine.

And I wonder if my drive to find answers to my pain is only making it worse. If only I can separate my mind from it, or not think so much about it. I don’t want to ignore my body and its needs, but my heart and soul are just as starved. If I can feed my heart and soul while giving my body the space to heal, that would be the best. It’s just that the things I normally want to do for that purpose require the parts of me that hurt the most.

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Dance like no one’s watching…

I just had an epiphany this morning.

I remembered that I used to dance to the radio. All the time. Whenever I had a spare moment, I would put on music that I liked and dance to it.

It started when I was really young. My Mom remembers me as a toddler leaning my ear against the big stereo in the basement, absorbing the music. When I got older, I would go down there as often as I could to listen to the radio and dance. And I would dance in front of the mirror, testing moves and pretending I was on stage.

My Mom got me a leotard when she knew I was serious about it, but she never got me dance lessons like I wanted. Instead, I got piano lessons, which was not even a close second, but I dealt with it.

Dancing was a ritual I practiced nearly every day. I knew exactly what radio stations I liked, and I got to know a lot of great songs in the 80’s – it was the golden age of pop with Michael Jackson and Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. I even choreographed dances to the Pointer Sisters and Starship, and Mom has since shown me my childhood drawings to prove it!

The trend continued as I grew up, into high school and college. Instead of finding a basement, I just took up whatever little space I could in my bedroom or dorm to just let myself move and gyrate to all the CD’s that I grew to love. My tastes had expanded into grunge and hip-hop, and as I developed my taste for classical music, I would even put that on and pretend I was a conductor!

I just realized, whoa…I’ve lost this ritual. In grad school I may have done some dancing by myself, but after that, it just totally petered out. And nowadays, I spend free moments on the Internet instead, sitting on my ass, getting jealous of other people’s Facebook lives and reading twisted news stories about politicians and pundits, feeling awful about the world.

What a horrible trade.

When I danced, I was exercising my whole person – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually – all of it. And I think my development as a musician owes more to my dancing than to most formal instruction I got as a child. When I danced, I was truly free. I could forget about the world and enjoy myself. And when I danced with others, I was uninhibited. I brought that same freedom to the dance floor.

I realized most suddenly today that I have to bring this ritual back to my life. I have to move again. I have to dance again. Bouncing to the car stereo is but a pale substitute, too – I gotta have arms and legs and torso involved. And brain. And heart. And I can’t do all that while driving.

Because I realize, that’s how I learn music – by touching it. As a pianist, I’m very tactile, I like to play it like a drum, even if my notes aren’t accurate. As a singer, I move and depend on sensation to guide my technique. As a conductor, well, it goes without saying.

I’ve become familiar with that modern proverb, “dance like no one’s watching…” But I’d like to take it a step further and say, dance when no one’s watching. Decide to do it whenever you need it, whenever it works for you – dance while you’re cleaning house, if that’s what does it. (I find that Korn’s first album is especially good for cleaning dirty bathrooms.) Don’t just dance socially, with other people. Dance with yourself – you are your own best dance partner.

And if you realize you’ve lost this ritual, get it back. Use some of your Internet time blasting music and moving around. While standing up – no butts in chairs, even if your chair rolls around.

Stupid me – I could have done this all winter when the weather was horrible. Can’t go for a morning run? The floor’s too cold for yoga? DANCE.

Ack! – I hate it when I realize what I’ve lost sometimes. But then I love it, when I know I can start doing it again…

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Confessions of a Closeted Jazz Cat

In rehearsal for a show in Plymouth, a good friend and fellow singer-songwriter noticed my jumpy syncopations on the keyboard and felt compelled to say something about it. In her other life, she is a therapist, so she has a finely honed practice of noticing things in other people that they normally wouldn’t see themselves.

“You are a jazz musician.”

I froze. An embarrassed grin spread across my face, like I was caught denying something. “We need to have an intervention,” she said.

“I’ve NEVER thought of myself as a jazz musician. Never ever,” I said. She just kept looking at me like there was no escaping it anymore.

And it wasn’t the first time this was said to me. A highly respected producer and recording artist in Detroit listened to my debut album and observed that I could market it as jazz, at least partially. And I abruptly denied it: “What? Are you kidding? Maybe in the Norah Jones sense, but…naaah!”

It’s not that I wouldn’t want to be a jazz artist; I get a good share of vibes and inspiration from jazz. I’ll listen to everything from Frank Sinatra to Ornette Coleman. It’s just that I admire jazz people so highly for their skill that I could never imagine counting myself among them.

Perspective: My first real exposure to live jazz was a blow-the-roof-off solo performance by Herbie Hancock twenty years ago. He and I both went to the same alma mater – Grinnell College. So for the college’s sesquicentennial, he played a private performance in Darby Gym, sharing exalted versions of old favorites like Watermelon Man and Dolphin Dance. I was in the fourth row, where I could see his hands in action, and I had never seen anything like that before (or since).

The very next day, I and the rest of the music majors got to have lunch with the man, a real treat. Not just a great musician but a great guy all around; it was an interaction I’ll never forget.

So that experience set the bar miles above my head for jazz performance, as it was the closest encounter with a jazz juggernaut I’ll probably ever have. There’s no way in eternity that anyone would include me with HIS ilk! Being around and hearing someone like that makes you feel like you’re hardly good enough to play Hot Cross Buns.

Hence my dismissal of jazz as part of my own performance.

But as soon as I started sharing my friend’s recent comments with other folks around me, more and more confirmations came back – I’m a closeted jazz cat. Musicians, listeners, friends, and even my parents wondered why I haven’t figured it out sooner.

But could I ever go down to a jazz bar in Detroit – like the Dirty Dog or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge – and be taken seriously?

Then came the cherry on the cupcake: Of all the free Reverbnation opportunities I signed up for in the last three months, the ONLY ONE to accept my submission for airplay was…a jazz station.

Ok, I give up!

The first thing I gotta learn is that jazz, as a genre, is much broader than I think. Herbie, for all his mastery and genius, only occupies a small portion of the realm, which includes hard bop, lounge jazz, big band, and show tunes, among other things. I’m also reminded of Louis Armstrong’s answer to the perennial question of what is jazz: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Now, I’m not claiming to be a jazz scholar of any kind, but that’s precisely the point – jazz was not born out of scholarly investigation but out of radical self expression. And who can’t claim that as a musician? That’s where all the best music lives, regardless of genre. Ergo, if I’m resisting calling myself a jazz artist, it could be that I’m resisting my own self expression.

And that’s the crux of the matter. Any person who resists the beauty that others see in her needs a little wake-up to reality, and it seems I just had mine.

So now I’m going to start dropping my resistance to jazz as a performer, and to see what’s possible with it. I think it’s just a matter of embracing the process, and not worrying about the product. Whether jazz listeners take me seriously is not the point; it’s about me taking my own self expression seriously. I once told a jazzy friend of mine that jazz was a method, and he nodded in agreement with me. If that’s all it is, why not make use of it?

Wish me luck.

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What’s up with Singing Circles

I have two of them going now, and it’s quite a blast.

A bunch of friends get together at my house to learn some vocal skills and sing together. I provide the tea and cozyness, they provide their voices and participation. It really is a good time, because I get to discover more singers who want to develop themselves, and whenever a breakthrough sound comes out of them, it’s euphoria – “Woah, that sounded LOUD!”

And these folks come from all walks of life – everybody from bartenders to post-graduate professors – to get a little taste of singing beyond what they already believe they can do.

The first huge result of this experiment came at Christmas, when a circle was invited to sing carols at a local church service. We picked the songs, rehearsed a couple of times, and sang them to the congregation.

The victory? For at least one of the singers, it was her first time singing in front of an audience without a karaoke track.

I live for stuff like that. When it happens, it means that someone has thrown off a myth about themselves and their own voice, and now their singing is freed up.

Could this become an epidemic? Please, please! I think we could ALL stand to live in a world with happier singers, no?

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Something To Ponder …

Just read this: Something To Ponder ….

If a lifetime is your chance to express who you are in the most adventurous and creative way you can imagine … what are you doing that supports that idea?

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Healing the Inner Child Singer

You know the story. Some teacher or music director tells a young person that they can’t sing, and the young singer is so hurt by this judgment that she fears or rejects singing forever after.

Adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond report these incidents to me in detail and still feel the pain as if it happened just yesterday.

And no matter how many times I tell people that anyone can learn to sing, or that teachers just don’t have the patience or skill to deal with underdeveloped singers, they still INSIST with all their might that THEY CAN’T SING, even if they wanted to. They defend this belief to the death. They defend the nasty teacher’s judgment as if it were the Eternal Law.

No one feels this level of emotion with regard to the skills of plumbing or accounting or tax law. Then again, no teacher has ever had THIS conversation with a kid, have they?

“Put that wrench down. You don’t have the ability to use that tool; you’re actually a mono-tool. Here, have this ball-point pen. You shouldn’t do plumbing; only if you’re naturally gifted.”

Yeah, if we heard a teacher say that, we’d be thinking, “What a twunt.”

But this conversation happens with regard to singing all the time. No wonder we take it personally. Musical ability, and especially singing, is so personal that for many people, an underdeveloped singing voice means there’s something wrong with them.

Why do we still tolerate this belief? Why??

Good question. So let me ask all those people who have been unfairly criticized, silenced, and labeled monotone at some point in the past:

What made that teacher “right”?

Was it the truth?

Did you really believe it then?

Do you still believe it now?

Why?

As children, we think teachers know best, or if they don’t know best, they at least have the power to override our objections (which is scarier).

Then we grow up. And a huge part of growing up is finding out that adults are NOT invincible, all-knowing, or all that caring. They are flawed, just as we are. The wisdom to see this and accept it is the mark of an adult mind.

But why do we so often fail to employ our adult mind when haunted by memories of a Nasty Teacher From the Past telling us we can’t sing? Because the child mind sticks around and keeps busy with those old thoughts. Just because we gain an adult mind doesn’t mean we lose the child mind.

So one thing we can do is have Adult Mind have a little soul-talk with Child Mind:

“Come here and have a hug and a cookie. You know what, I know it hurts. That was a very hurtful thing she said, and she just didn’t realize how hurtful it was to you. She didn’t understand. She didn’t know you. She didn’t understand that you were just young and only at the beginning of your development. Whatever she believes about singing is not the Law or the Truth. You don’t have to believe anything she said. There’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t have to let her words keep you from singing. They can’t hurt you anymore.”

That’s a good start.

But there’s further to go.

The Adult Mind has to do more than just reassure Child Mind that the past doesn’t have to keep hurting us in the present. Adult and Child Mind have to realize that they’re the same mind.

“Kiddo, the reason I know you’re going to be okay is because I’m going to be okay. We’re the same person. I am you, just all grown up! You can look forward to being this awesome, and totally free from whatever nastiness you’re facing now. Because, look at me – you survived. So you can just tell that teacher to piss off, because you get to be me now.”

In other words, if the past can affect the present, why can’t the present affect the past?

We let the past creep in all the time, as if the past had its own power that we can’t control – like it’s some kind of being. For many of us, it holds us prisoner. But who does my past belong to? Me. No one else. I own it. If I ever feel like it owns me, I get to turn the tables on that monster and give it what for – I make it look hard and long at this person in the present who’s stronger, wiser, and transformed…and the monster backs down.

If a teacher can make my young self believe that I can’t sing, and that my incompetence is innate…then why can’t I make myself believe that my inner strength is just as innate? That strength was always there. Why? Because Adult and Child are one person. Child survived the past, and that alone is proof of her strength as an adult.

So give yourself this little visualization – picture your adult self sitting down with your child self. (And it has to be your own adult self – not your therapist, parent, spirit guide, or anyone else but grown-up YOU.) Your present gets to tell your past that even though the past stuff hurts, we get to live in the present and choose what we believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Because that’s where our power is – the now. That’s where we have choice. Why live in a place where we have no choice? Why let your Child self live there? Let her join you. Let her see who she really is.

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“…with no spoils of the game.”

Just read this: http://raprehab.com/confessions-of-a-failed-hip-hop-artist/

As musicians, we easily fall into the neediness trap: “If I just get in with this person and split a show with that guy and get reviewed on that blog…I’ll have it made!”

We think our success depends on how others view us, and so we push and push to make better impressions on the “right” people, thinking we’re lost without this or that big-name person giving us compliments and shaking our hand.

This is the poison.

Here’s the truth: Yes, it IS about who you know. But this truth can be anyone’s downfall.

What to do? Try to develop strong face-to-face relationships with average listeners; don’t just shout everything over the Internet. And if you happen to approach a person of clout, relate to them from your heart, and not from your business model.

Rob Jay learned the hard way, and I salute him for sharing his candid story.

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A Minor Annoyance

It’s finally gotten on my nerves just enough for me to say something about it. I’m getting tired of hearing variations on this statement:

“I don’t like anything in a minor key.”

News for you: That doesn’t mean what you think it means. You’re using “minor” as a general term to mean “bad sounding” or “sad” or “evil” or whatever, when the actual musical definition is quite another thing.

I suppose it’s easy to equate major/minor with every other familiar binarism in our cultural file: good/bad, light/dark, happy/sad, male/female, and on and on. And so, naturally, the musical layman falls into the same pattern when trying to describe music that’s sad, dour, serious, or just played poorly – “it sounds minor.” But it’s inaccurate. I had a friend say to me that a god-awful string quartet played everything “in minor,” when the reality is they played out of tune, which is REALLY bad if you’re trying to play Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And that song is as major as they come!

Using “minor” as a broad brush to describe anything less than Ode-to-Joy happy and perfect is a misuse of the term; worse, it does real disservice to an overwhelming body of music in minor keys, modes and alternative scales that really do lift us into joy and wonderment.

Take a for instance: It’s the holiday season right now, and the familiar carols are swimming around our aural fields like a bunch of excited birds. Lots of our favorite Christmas songs are actually in minor keys and are not downers: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, We Three Kings, and What Child is This are three common examples. Beyond that, there are millions of examples of uppity, happy, and positive minor-key songs across all areas of folk, rock, pop, and classical music. An easy example is Star of the County Down, a terrific Irish folk song about a guy feeling smitten by a sweet lassie with “nut-brown hair.”

Likewise, you will also find plenty of sad, serious, angry, and dour music in major keys across the board.  The biggest major-key weeper I’ve ever heard is Spiegel im Spiegel, a violin and piano piece by Arvo Pärt. Be warned – it might make you think of dying people if you’re not careful.

So what do “major” and “minor” really mean, musically? Ars-nova.com has a succinct definition:

Major and minor can be used to refer to the greater and lesser versions of certain intervals … and you most often hear them used to describe the difference between music in a major key (music whose scale contains a major third upward from its “tonic,” the starting note, so that the basic tonic chord is major) and music in a minor key (whose tonic chord is minor, since the scale on which it is based has a minor third from the starting note).

The difference is quantitative and measurable, when you get down to the actual notes. It’s not subjective. But ars-nova.com is also keen to note the emotional meanings we’ve grafted onto this concept:

There are other differences between the major and minor scales, of course, but the main thing is that tonic chord to which the music returns home so often. “Home” in the first case is a cheerful optimistic lighthearted major triad, and in the other case is a tragic ominous forlorn minor (who knows how those feelings got started, but maybe there’s something to them).

Actually, let me take a guess as to “how those feelings got started”: the idea of a major/minor dichotomy did not exist at all in Western music until the eighteenth century, when French composer Jean-Phillipe Rameau wrote his Treatise on Harmony to tell the world that there was a universal law governing all of Western music, and it could be explained mathematically, scientifically and philosophically under the heading of major/minor tonality. Before Rameau’s time, music was composed not in major or minor scales, but modes – Aeolian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Hypodorian, etc. – these were originally named after different civilizations in ancient Greece. Back then, it was believed that modes could affect people mentally and emotionally – some could cause relaxation and others, excitement.  So people like Aristotle and Plato could talk about how music could be used to stimulate people’s character and actions in a certain way.

This belief persisted from ancient Greece all the way up through Rameau’s time. Now, even though the music of the eighteenth century sounded nothing like the old modes (listen to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos next to Gregorian chant – night and day), the idea of harmonies tugging at people’s emotions never went away. And it just so happened that the major scale took on mostly “positive” associations and the minor scale was left with mostly “negative” ones. By the time we get to the nineteenth century, the obvious philosophical conclusion to make is that the triumph of positive stuff over negative stuff could be expressed in music that transforms from a minor key into a major one: Beethoven’s 5th – end of story.

So where does that leave us now? Well, we live in a world where fundamental binarisms (is that a word?) are being challenged right and left, particularly in the social world – gender being the big one of note. And music is also proving to be more complex and nuanced with each passing day (except in Top 40 radio, which I don’t get). Minor doesn’t have to sound sad, nor does major imply happiness. Sometimes major and minor flow into and out of each other like in a blues song, and sometimes the old modes come out to play again and transport us to an exotic world. Sometimes music delights in being ambiguous, or it throws tonality out the window altogether to expose us to a new soundscape we’ve never considered before.

We also live in a world where basic musical terms like major, minor, scale, chord, and tone are much less understood now than they were years ago. Today’s lay listener is musically illiterate. And because of this, it can be hard for musicians and listeners to speak the same language. I hope that throwing open a conversation about the too-casual use of “major” and “minor” will help in this regard.

So before you say you don’t like minor-key music, ask your musical friends to point you toward some real, life-affirming minor-key and modal songs and see if you feel the same way after listening to them. Also, feel free to post in the comments your favorite happy minor-key/modal/alternative scale stuff, as well as any major-key songs that are more complex emotionally than the key would imply.

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Never thought it would happen to me.

I haven’t shared about this incident much, only to private friends and colleagues. And I’ve questioned the appropriateness of sharing about it in this blog. But that’s only out of fear, and why should an artist be afraid? We’re supposed to be the ones cutting through fear and misconception with our work. If I believe that’s part of my job, then I should just do it.

[BIG BREATH] …I’ve been dismissed from a band based on my appearance.

It was a real shock, because I’d been singing with this group for many months with reasonable success, and up until my dismissal there was never any question of whether I had what it took to sing everything from Aretha Franklin to Adele to Pat Benatar with strength and subtlety. It was a cover band – a bar/party/wedding-type operation that was poised to make waves in the casino circuit…until an “industry person” told our bandleader that I “looked like a librarian” and said,

“If you close your eyes, it’s a good band.”

Never mind that most of the other members of the band – all of them men – wore glasses like I did.

Never mind that they were all older than me and starting to show a tinge of grey, trading stories about their colonoscopies in rehearsal.

Never mind that at least one of them liked to wear baseball caps to gigs.

I was singled out because I was the female lead singer, and apparently I couldn’t dress or act like one. (Yes, like one of THOSE female lead singers.) Actually, I WON’T do that, because I resent the fact that men in music can get away with looking dreadful on stage and women can’t – unless they show their vagina or something. Or they’re Patty Smith. It’s a double standard, and even though it’s always been around and probably always will be around, it still doesn’t feel right.

I’m reminded of a song lyric by a good friend, Emily Rose:

“This is what a woman should look like / a tiny Tinkerbell jumping on a trampoline.”

This is the world of the “well-decorated mousetrap” that we’re all born into, even now, in the new millennium.

It wasn’t about my singing at all. Nor was it about my work ethic. Both were good. Some would say better than good. But because I stopped short of twerking, it wasn’t good enough.

Now, I’m not above being coached in the area of styling, and I said as much to this bandleader as an offering to look at myself and see what I could work on – I’d LOVE to be ambushed by a fashion-savvy friend who will raid my closet and tell me what not to wear! But it wasn’t enough. Not only did he want me to lose the glasses and dress differently, he wanted me to jump out into the audience and dance and interact with people more. The other lead singer of the band was doing exactly that, even standing on tables and being an outright flirt.

But here’s the thing: unlike him, I have a vagina! I look at the audience, and six inches in front of me is a sweaty, drunk guy trying to rub up against me! You seriously want me to jump out into that?

He said it was all about stage presence, not about how attractive I was. And he patronized me by saying I was a “very attractive woman.” But why is my attractiveness even a part of the conversation? Is praising my sex appeal supposed to be reassuring, somehow? That’s not what you hired me for. You hired me to SING, and I sang my ass off for months in your band before you decided my image had to be measured against some “industry” standard. You chose to ignore the best part of what I have to offer.

I steeled myself for what I thought would be the most common responses from my colleagues when I confided in them about what happened:

“That’s just how the industry is.”

“Duh – of COURSE you have to have the right image because that’s part of the product.”

“Don’t be surprised. It happens to everybody.”

“Customers are dumb/fickle/easily seduced.”

“Industry people are just bullish – that’s how it’s always been.”

But I heard none of those things. Everyone I told responded with shock and outrage at what this person had done. I was heartened to see that although image continues to reign supreme in pop music – from mainstream to indie and back again – more and more people are seeing it as a tyrannical emperor wearing no clothes. And what this bandleader did was bow down to him. He betrayed my loyalty by taking the low-hanging fruit that this “industry person” was dangling in front of him.

Well, in response to this rebuff, I decided to channel the power of Elvis Costello:

elvis1

Here was a guy who just doesn’t give a crap about what people think of him; he embodies the punk ethic of “F— YOU” completely. He’s perfectly OK with being a total square. So I vowed to embrace my own square-ness and keep my glasses, thank you very much. And I won’t be ashamed to wear pencil skirts, straight pants, flowy tops and sharp jackets. And I’ll never wear high heels onstage because I have a hard time singing in them.

I give people my best product when I’m being fully myself, and the same is true for any successful woman in music – from Patty Smith all the way to Beyonce. I’m not going to hide it behind a style that doesn’t work for me.

And I’m not going to let one dismissal from one cover band ruin my career. I got lots of other things to think about, besides. Like my choir and my indie solo career. That stuff leaves no time for people who are willing to trash my loyalty to the art of music.

At this point in the post, I originally thought I should give you readers a sexy photo of me to prove that I can rock my look, but I changed my mind. I am beautiful, but I got so much more to share than beauty. Instead, I want you to hear me, and once you’ve done that, you can tell me if I got what it takes.

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Anti-Piano Bias?

Please excuse me if this sounds like a rant, because it probably will be once I’m at least two-thirds through writing this.

I’ve been going to open mics around the Detroit area for a couple of years, and what I love about them is the chance to show off my stuff, test some things out, and meet new friends. It’s been an awesome experience. My favorite open mic is at the Black Lotus brewery, because you see the best variety of artists there with a lot of amazing talent. The hosts are also very sweet and the sound system and stage facilities accommodate a wide variety of musicians.

I’d love to play more open mics like this, but it’s frustrating because there’s hardly anywhere else I can bring my keyboard. It’s not an instrument I can just strap on my back and jump on a bike with. It has 88 fully weighted keys which makes for a 20 pound instrument. I’m in the market for something less unwieldy, but until then, this is what I got. It needs a stand, which requires me to make two loading trips to get everything on stage.

But it’s not just about me and my inconveniences. There’s also the issue of what kinds of music the venue wants to welcome.  Some may say they are truly interested in getting wide range of styles up there on stage, but they limit the kind of variety they’re getting by not having a keyboard – or at least a keyboard stand – available.

So what they end up with is guitarist singer-songwriter after guitarist singer-songwriter sharing their version of the guitarist singer-songwriter.

I just saw a new “acoustic open mic” being announced at a local pub, and it begs the question: How acoustic is acoustic? Does that mean no amplification, or just no electronic instruments? In either case, it completely rules out the keyboardist, even if she only plays her Yamaha Portable Grand. If there were an acoustic piano on site, she’d have no problem walking in and playing an expressly acoustic show. I, for one, don’t play all these weird organ patches and stuff with loops and samples – 99% of the time, I’m playing my acoustic piano sound, because rare is the music venue that has an acoustic piano in house.*

It’s partly money, I know. But if you can afford to have a decent sound system, then how much of a burden is it to have a keyboard stand so that you don’t just get 14 Bob Dylan wannabes in a row?

And that’s exactly what I’ve been seeing – guys AND girls with guitars (though now all the girls have ukuleles), all doing the same kind of folk-rock in this angst-ridden, valium-induced balladeering which is all starting to sound the same. Or, they will get a whole slew of guys that play only classic rock and blues, and when the blues stuff really gets going, the whole stage overflows with 10 guys all playing solos on top of each other for 20 straight minutes – as if there aren’t any blues clubs at all in Detroit!

Don’t people know that songwriters don’t all play guitars, and that some of them play genres other than folk rock? If you’re a venue that’s committed to having a variety of music, then please make it possible for musicians other than those playing acoustic guitar come play at the open mics. It’s really tough to haul around keyboards, drums, pedal boards and other equipment just to share music and make new connections. If you make it easier for us, then you might just experience a blossoming of live music at your venue.

But if you’re just offering an open mic night as a way to throw table scraps to musicians you don’t want to pay, then all you will attract are table-scrap musicians, and you’ll wonder why live music doesn’t bring in the kind of money you want. If venues complain about the lack of variety they attract, they’re the ones creating it by not having facilities that accommodate a wide variety of musicians.

*UPDATE: I had a wonderful conversation today with a local artist/producer/consultant/man of many hats that got me thinking differently about this post. I mean, there ARE venues with pianos on site – they’re called piano bars and jazz clubs. Duh! So I wonder if maybe I just need to poke around a different scene? What if I’m the one who needs to think outside the box to connect with more listeners??

Also, I should add that I forgot to include Goldfish Tea in Royal Oak as a keyboard-friendly open mic – they supply a keyboard and stand for their Friday night event.

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