When I was in grade school, we lived in Lexington, KY. Beautiful country and thanks to the proliferation of race horses, “(horse) flies as big as Buicks,” to quote Emmylou Harris. I remember first going to Keeneland, the quarter horse track in Lexington when I was about nine years old. It was exciting to see these large animals racing as hard as they could around the track. If you watch a race closely, you’ll notice the horses often have patches over their eyes when competing. This is so the horse, with eyes on both sides of his head, doesn’t get distracted and keeps focused on the job ahead. In this case, it’s winning a horse race.
What has horse racing have to do with solo gigs? Plenty, as it turns out. A lot of work has to be done in private to become a successful musician in any genre or size ensemble. It takes a lot more work to become a good solo entertainer. Almost all of it is done by yourself. You need to give it 100% effort for an extended time to win any race or land any gig. To keep on winning races and landing gigs takes a tremendous amount of effort. It takes “tunnel vision.”
Tunnel vision is like a prisoner trying to dig his way out of confinement. In case of a working solo musician, this means hours working on songs, arrangements, vocal and/or instrument approaches, drum and/or sequencing on a computer of one sort or other, etc. This requires a willingness to make sacrifices in order to bring a song or songs or a musical approach to fruition. I learned a wonderful definition of sacrifice in Hollywood, CA in 1983 from my friend Stan Stratton: “sacrifice is the giving up of something good in order to get something better in return.” It always requires a sacrifice of our time, talent, labor, energy and thought in order to making something worthwhile of our musical efforts. I attended GIT with Bart Samolis and Tim Lerch. In addition to being tireless workers, they are both extremely dedicated musicians. Watch Tim on one of his many YouTube videos or listen to Bart as he appears on TV and movie soundtracks, recordings, etc. They understand the value of sacrifice in their time and both have a great sense of tunnel vision when it comes to their craft. They have talent, sure- but they also used tunnel vision and belief in themselves to become experts in their field.
It’s important to understand your gifts and put yourself in a position to make the most of what you have been given. I’m more of a singer/guitarist and wanted to use Midi to help me get professional sounds with a small act. I have been using sequencing in my live shows since 1991. I began programming drum tracks on an Alesis HR-16 drum machine and recall spending hours on the Box Scaggs hit, “Love, Look What You’ve Done To Me.” It was almost finished and then the unthinkable happened- I accidentally erased it! If it’s true what they say that “you aren’t a real engineer until you’ve erased at least one master (recording), “ then I became a real engineer! I then moved to software sequencing, learning to operate Trax, Master Trax Pro, Power Tracks Pro, Garage Band, Logic Pro and now Pro Tools, mostly by myself. I’ve sequenced close to 300 songs in the past 24 years. It’s taken a long time, but I am able to perform a wide variety of tunes because I’ve worked hard at it. They have been many nights burning the midnight oil, including many nights before and even after a gig, fine tuning my backing tracks. I play all my own bass, guitar, pedal steel and mandolin parts as well as doing all my own vocal harmonies. It takes time and a belief that if I keep going until it sounds good to me, the audience will enjoy it, too. I haven’t studied mandolin or pedal steel so I simply get after it and keep going until I am able to record something that works.
“All My Ex’s (Live In Texas)” is a great song that I did unplugged for years. Finally, about 5 years ago, I sequenced the entire tune except for one part- pedal steel. The great Paul Franklin is responsible for that wonderful C6th goodness on the recording and no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get it. Several people on YouTube were playing it on the E9 neck of a pedal steel and my Dekley D-10 couldn’t approach it that way. Finally, late one night, I was trolling a pedal steel board when I discovered a link about the tune. About 11 posts down, Maestro Franklin himself posted his own tab chart to the intro on the C6 neck! It took me a few weeks to finally get the intro down in a mediocre fashion in Logic and that’s the same version I used this past weekend. If I had given up at any point, I wouldn’t have this song as part of my country repertoire. I’m delighted I persevered and so is the audience.
It takes time and effort to learn to labor for an extended time with no immediate reward in sight. My favorite analogy about this is the bamboo tree. Steven R Covey described it this way in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. “After the seed for this amazing tree is planted, you see nothing, absolutely nothing for four years except for a tiny shoot coming out of a bulb. During those four years, all thr growth is underground in a massive, fibrous root structure that spreads deep and wide in the earth. But then in the fifth year the Chinses bamboo tree grows up to eighty feet! Many things in life are like the Chinese bamboo tree. You work and you invest time and effort and you do everything you can possibly do to nuture growth, and sometimes you don’t see anything for weeks, months or even years. But if you’re patient and keep on working and nurturing, that “fifth” year will come and you will be astonished at the growth and change you see taking place.”
Shawn Phillips said late at night was the time he “got to work,” so to speak. He forced himself to sit down and labor for many hours until he had come up with a piece of music he was satisfied with. He “held his own feet to the fire. ”
This is the great lesson each of us must learn in order to enjoy success in our chosen field. Once you’re done reading this, go get your guitar, keyboard, sax or whatever your main instrument is and make plans to accomplish something! Work on something you can do better in your act. Keep at it and make this a habit. Over a period of months or years, you will be able to earn more and play better gigs. Develop your own “tunnel vision” and see where it takes you.