Friday, December 23, 2011

more christmas clarifications

Well, my post yesterday definitely gathered a bit of a response- which is good.  Now, 24 hours(ish) later, I realize I need to clarify a few things.

First off, I know full well that not all praise team members are lazy- but a lot of them are.  In fact, I'll go as far as to say most are.  I hear the statement all the time that "it's a matter of heart, not ability" or words to that effect.  That's crap, and here's why: 

I have a heart to fly an airliner.  I think I can do a great job at it because I know how to fly an airplane already (variable prop rating); I perform well under pressure because I don't panic; I genuinely care about people and making sure that they are safe; I love to travel and I've been lots of places so I know how to get there.  I've spent a little amount of time at the controls of an airplane, and I understand the physics, the rules, how to use a radio, read a compass, understand an artificial horizon, what "trim" is, etc.  I have "the basics", in other words.  

Get the idea here?  Would you get on an airliner with me at the controls, just because I "have a heart" for this and I have a teeny amount of experience?  Of course you wouldn't, and no one would blame you.  Let's take that further- even if you are a born-again, Bible thumping, evangelical, on-fire Christian, and you KNOW that you have eternal salvation, and you KNOW that if I killed you in the inevitable crash you would immediately go to Heaven - you still wouldn't get on that plane.  My point is that, in the example I cite above, the proof of my ability is not borne out by my heart.  Others will not benefit from that.  It's dangerous to expect a better outcome - I mean, yeah, I probably could fly an airliner, but the real question is SHOULD I?  I need to study with other pilots, practice, study some more, take a test, take an audition, study some more, and then.........maybe.........

Which brings me to my second point- if you, as a Christian traveller, pointed out that I was ill-equipped to fly that airplane, I really can't take offense at that.  In fact, if I did - and then, went forward and insisted that I was the guy for the job based on my "heart" - you'd call me crazy, and again no one would blame you.  You are telling the truth.  But, if we, as Christians point out that someone really needs more practice befpore climbing on a stage, we're told WE are the problem for pointing that out, and that we have offended the other person, and that is somehow bad.

My third point is that, even though I know the direction from Seattle, Washington to Los Angeles, California, I still need a map, right?  And, I need to know how to read that map.  "But- all I need to do is follow the coast line south to Los Angeles, right...."- uh, no.  Yeah, that will get me to Los Angeles, but I don't know how to get to the airport, and even if I did, I don't know the route without a map (and talking to the control tower) - and there's lots of other planes in the area, and I don't want to hit them.  "Oh, wait- you have a window.  Just look out the window and you can see the airport, and you can see if there are other planes and keep from hitting them that way"- uh, again, no.  Having a scribble of paper with "x's" to mark the airplanes doesn't work, either.  This is the same thing as telling musicians that they are NOT musicians unless they can read- and, once again, if I point that out to other praise team members, I am again told that I am being egotistical and vain.

My fourth point takes us to the Control Tower, or the Praise Team Leader.  They have to give the final instructions to planes that land and take-off, and occasionally, they have to handle an emergency or two.  In order to do that, they have to be able to converse in a common language with the other planes- but not only that, but they need to know the rules, too.  They need to be able to make decisions quickly and precisely and for the good of all involved.  In order to make that happen and make sure that everyone who communicates with control tower can do so properly, all the pilots of the planes have to go through constant training and updates in procedures.  If you talk to a pilot and ask them "when does your training end" they will tell you that it never does.  It's a constant thing- and, if they don't do it and stay current, they're fired.

Ah- now, there's the rub- I said "stay current".  That might sound like it serves the argument I'm against, but it absolutely doesn't.  Why?  Because, even though the rules get current, the basics don't.  Lift is lift.  Thrust is thrust.  Pitch and yaw are pitch and yaw.  The physics of flight do not change and they never will.  If you do not understand the basics of flight, you cannot (and should not) participate in the rest of it.  There are no shortcuts to this, either- because a shortcut here means bad things to the passengers.

All of this is true with the praise and worship musician.  If you don't know how to read music - and, I mean printed sheet music with rhythms and notes - you are a drain on the process and you cannot and will not ever increase your skill.  If you cannot communicate with other musicians, you cannot get better.  

"Success" only comes before "Work" in the dictionary.  

If the sum total of your musical ability and your goal is to mimic a few shallow concepts, then you are wasting everyone's time, so please- get off the stage and don't come back.  If your goal, as a worship leader or music director, is just to emulate the crap you hear on the radio without trying to understand what's happening or increasing your team's skill and ability and are afraid to rock this boat, then you are wasting everyone's time, so please- don't take issue with me when I call you out and tell you why there's more to be had and more to be done.  I might just know a little more than you do.

I have more points to this discussion that I need to spend a little more time on before I commit them to this blog, but rest assured, I will.  Soon.  And, in the meantime, if I call you out because I think you're lazy - and I will do that - it isn't to exalt me.  I am keenly aware that I still have much to learn.  It's to tell you that I expect more from you, and that I am willing and most able to help if you want.  Otherwise, if you're offended by my attempt to help you, take your faux-hawk and get off the stage.  You don't belong here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

oh, for christ's sake.....

At least once a year, I take at least 10 minutes and gripe about the state of music in general.  And, it's that time of year again- but I'm hoping I can be a little more focused.

As most know, I've spent a good deal of time in my career playing recording sessions.  The life of a session musician is an interesting one, in that while I consider it a distinct honor to get to be involved in someone's very personal manifestation of muse, let's face it- a lot of it is not great music.  That's a very personal indictment to be sure, and even though it sounds like I'm slamming the folks I've played for, I really don't mean to.  See, the thing of it is that not everyone can be a Beethoven, Mozart or J.S. Bach.  Not everyone who picks up a guitar will be Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck.  Not every bass part of every song is going to have me playing maj9#11 chords like a wild-haired Jaco clone (even if I had hair.....) - and that is 100% ok.  Music is about expression of the heart - and that is what makes a lot of (what I would call) "sub-standard music" worthwhile.

But, the thing of it is that being a session player gives one a view - perhaps micro-cosmic - of what's going on in the industry.  I've been doing this a long, long time, and at no point in my career have I ever been so completely displeased and depressed about the state of music than I am now.  To be honest, I would really have to use the word "despondent".

Just like Hollywood now, there is almost nothing original anymore.  What's worse, I find that some of the people that I play with - be it live or studio - find originality and craftsmanship to be a joke.  They marginalize my argument by telling me that I'm not "current" or that I am an "old man" - and, perhaps that is true - but, when I think of artists that I hold in high regard, all of them had their influences.  They recognized their predecessor's talents and offerings, but rather than just emulate them part for part, they would add their own signatures to what they did.  This caused forms of music to evolve.  Nowadays, none of that exists.  It's more about the appearance (I can't do a faux-hawk) or the latest gear or software- but no one takes any time to craft what they do.  It's all part of our microwave society - "SUCCESS NOW!".

Whether or not you are a spiritual person, there is no denying that there is a direct connection from art to spirituality.  The greatest songs ever written are great because they touch people- either by evoking a shared experience like love lost, or by initiating a thought of a heretofore not-thought-of emotion.  Those things that touch us in this way are timeless, but one of the cruxes of being able to do that for an artist is to craft things so that they tie up nicely.  There was a day not long ago when Christian songwriters were the cream of the crop as far as tying all things artistic and spiritual together.  Artists like Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill and Keith Green had a way of invoking an immediacy and a sense of urgency through their lyrics in words and pictures.  For example, the Randy Stonehill song, "Sweet Emily" - a song about a dying girl and her quest to make her members of her family at peace with her impending death had this lyric to sum up the message:

"This life is but a moment in the morning of my day."

Even now, as I write this blog entry, that lyric literally brings a tear to my eye.

But today, we don't have that.  Instead, we have what I'd like to call "Jesus Fan-Boy" music in Christandom.  There is precious little difference in the Christian music idiom that is different from a Justin Bieber song.  Or, more often than not, it isn't considered "Praise Music" without a healthy dose of a Line 6 MM4 delay pedal and some kind of rudimentary ostinato pattern with pedal tones, that constitutes "closer to God" - but only if you have the right haircut.  (Am I bitter about this hair thing?  Yep.  I am.)  To make matters even worse, when bringing up the idea that "kum-by-ah" charts (words with an occasional mark of a chord) are somehow substandard to an actual chart with barlines - and, yes, I am suggesting that real musicians are able to read music - is met with all sorts of reasons like, "it's easier for most people to play these" and "you wouldn't be so lost if you weren't reading all the time".......

All of this is pure laziness and all of it is not of God, and I'll go as far as to say that it's not music, either.  It's a formula and nothing more.  No one is interested in excellence anymore.  No one cares to know anything about performance.  (And don't get me started on the subject of "it's worship and not a performance" because people who say that are stupid.  You cannot have one without the other, period.)  No one cares about craft- and worst of all, in the realm of Christian music, they think that they are playing for an audience, or that somehow if things look a certain way and there's a lack of depth to things that they will be able to usher people into worship and commune with God-

Hey!  Understand this, you with the faux-hawk- your audience isn't the people in the congregation.  Your audience - who you are playing for- is God.  It's an audience of 1.  And, God doesn't care what it looks like - I guarantee it.

All of this really comes to a head for me when Christmas rolls around.  We are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Savior- the one, true Living God- and this is NOT the time to press your skimpy, misguided ideas.  This is one of two times that most non-church goers actually attend, and here we are, more worried about being "hip" and looking good and trying to sound like yesterdays crap music than we are in telling people the story of what Christmas is actually all about.

So- Mr. Faux-Hawk- pull your head out of your rear, and at least try to excel at something, rather than being utterly, forgettably hip.  Have some substance, and don't reject the idea that people (yes, like me) who have not only been around the block, but actually helped build it - might just know what we're talking about.  And, if you're like me and actually have participated in making actual music and you find that you are just bending to go with the flow- shame on you.  The people that I'm railing against - the ones that really don't have a clue - they need your help.  You need to stand up, man up, and start demanding the excellence from these people just as you have demanded it from yourself.  To do anything less is not a God-thing - it's a lazy thing.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

what a difference 70 years makes

This really is a momentous day.  Many, many Americans make the mistake that WWII started 70 years ago today, December 7, 1941.  The fact is that if you talk to historians, they will give you varying dates on when it started- and, even though I'm not a bonafide "historian", I have my own date that I consider as the start- October 3, 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia.  But, why even bring this up?

There's more parallels between this country's current state of war and back then than a lot of people realize.  Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931; the Germans (for all intents and purposes) had so much participation in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 that they might as well have been listed as an actual combatant; and Mussolini had decided that a little border incident in Somaliland in 1935 warranted a full-fledged invasion.  Germany annexes Austria and the Sudatenland in 1938 and invades Poland in 1939; Russia, France, Yugoslavia and a bunch of other countries in 1940 and attacks Britain in the summer of 1940.  Germany sinks American ships all during 1940 and early 1941.

So, what were we doing during this?  Not a whole lot.  This country was being "isolationist".  In fact, FDR, prior to 12/7/41, really didn't want to head us into a war.  We had lots of problems here- a really bad economy; rampant unemployment; a double-dip recession after the Great Depression- the very last thing we needed was to get involved in any fight that was thousands of miles away and had no real bearing or security problem for the US.  No one thought for a second that the Japanese would invade the US, and Germany was too far, and the Italians didn't have any of the infrastructure needed to supply anything like that, so we sat by and offered aid to the Brits and hoped it would all go away.  When the situation in China got to the point that the world was watching, we started an embargo against the Japanese- and that was the entire reason for the Japanese to attack us in the first place.  (The Japanese intent on the attack on Hawaii was not to get us into the war- in fact, it was the opposite.  The Japanese figured it was just a matter of time before the US would have to act, and in order to keep their expansionist movement in place, they would cripple our ability to fight and withdraw the embargo.)

All that changed when the Japanese came calling on that Sunday morning in Hawaii, however- but, even then, the American people knew that there was no way that Japan could sustain any kind of real, meaningful action on US soil.  But, that didn't matter.

Just like then, if you were to press the average American on an answer to "what do you think the real goal of terrorism is", no one in their right mind is going to say that they fear an invasion.  And, like the US of the late 30's, we sat largely idle while our allies like Israel and others took attack after attack, invasion after invasion, and didn't really act.  Not really.  And, all that changed on 9/11/2001.

But, that's where the common ground ends.  In 1941, the entire country galvanized around the loss of 2,500 service men and women and said that was enough.  I believe that there were certain elements of the US Citizenry that was probably against declaring war, but the undeniable vast majority of this country was steeled for it.  And, remember- the US was losing the war until The Battle of the Coral Sea in May of 1942 (some say The Battle of Midway in June of '42) but even then- when our losses were in the hundreds of thousands- the Americans remained steadfast in their resolve.

Let's face it- when you hear people call that generation of Americans "the Greatest Generation", that is a 100% accurate term.  No matter what date WWII "started", we were faced with an enemy that had superior numbers, superior equipment and troops that had been in battle non-stop for almost 10 years.  They had experience and drive, and for a time, the upper hand.  Check your history books for accounts of battles like Guadalcanal, The Solomons, North Africa and the invasion of Italy in 1943- we were getting our butts handed to us at every single turn.

But, we prevailed.

Ok- so what, you say.  We kicked ass.  Yes, we did- but the Greatest Generation didn't stop there.  We sent folks to the enemies we vanquished and rebuilt their countries.  We started companies and families and jobs, jumpstarted our own economy in the process, that generation continued to go forward and innovate and clean up the mess that the rest of the world had caused.  And, they didn't complain one bit.  The US had sustained 300,000 dead and 800,000 wounded over the course of WWII- and that was less than 4 years of fighting.

In the days since 9/11, we have sustained far less casualties than that- and I am in no way suggesting that those casualties are less in the cost.  Any life lost is a tremendous loss.

So, what's my point?  My point is that back then, in the days where we didn't have up-to-the-nanosecond news and embedded media and a country that was as backwards as it could be- when the chips were down, this country rose up from the inside, took a deep breath and practiced a big bunch of TCB while building huge containers of whup-ass and delivered them with pin-point accuracy and resolve right where it was needed- and we did it in less than 4 years.  Now, we're 10 years in and the fight seems to have gone out of us wholesale.  We struggle with things like political partisonship over the dumbest things, and can't seem to get our collective heads together enough or come together long enough to get anything done.  It really pisses me off when I think what The Greatest Generation did for all of us alive today, and how much we have squandered that gift- a gift very much paid for in blood and sinew- and how we soil that gift every single day.

Today, there's not many men and women left of that generation.  I would like to extend my deepest thanks and gratitude to them- especially the 2,500 men and women of Pearl Harbor- who took the fight to the enemy and emerged victorious.  And then, I'd like to extend that same deep sense of gratitude to the men and women who are sacrificing right freaking now- doing a job I'm am very glad I don't have to do.  And, after that, I extend the challenge to everyone who is here at home (like me) who has never had to participate in something as horrible as armed conflict, to take a deep breath and try very, very hard to be the next Greatest Generation and never, EVER forget the price that has been paid for us.