Music - Blog

Mark Patrick

Music Blogs 

My thoughts on music, Musicians & Vocalists

Unexpected Musical Delights

 

You never know what to expect when you enter a place; a pub, bar or restaurant, with live music being played.

Here in the south of Spain, where I live, it is likely to be flamenco, rock or pop more than jazz, although in the ‘piano bar’ of some hotels you might find a pianist playing a selection of more agreeable ‘muzak’, but it’s more for background rather than for people to actually listen to.

But whatever it is, it’s well worthwhile to take a few minutes to actually ‘listen’ to the music, musicians and singers – you might be surprised.

 

Many years ago, when I was in my early twenties I worked in London (UK). At that time, the late 1960s – early 1970s, I was not making a lot of money and, being single in a big city, found my entertainment in solitary pursuits like reading, or writing. Some evenings, however, after work and before returning to my shared apartment, I had a pint, or two, of ale to relax me.

So one Friday evening, I dropped into a pub near the place I was working for a pint and there was a short, round-faced young man in a corner of the bar starting to play; it was just him, singing in an American accent, accompanying himself on guitar.

I listened to his set, and something about the quality of his playing and singing caught my attention. His set was a mixture of popular folk stuff, with some original songs I found interesting. Over the course of the evening, I drank a couple more beers and listened. It was one of the most enjoyable evenings I’d to that point in my life, and I didn’t even know the young man’s name.

A year later I saw him again. This time he had a backing group and the venue wasn’t a local pub, but the Royal Albert Hall. He was singing with another young man called Art Garfunkel and he, of course, was Paul Simon.

 

Some years later, my wife and I were finishing an evening out in Puerto de Santa Maria in Cadiz and dropped into a small ‘piano bar’ at eleven o’clock.

There had been a teenage pop-rock group playing, who were packing up their equipment and loading it onto a rather battered van.

I asked the waiter if they were closing, or if we could have a drink.

“Come in, come in!” He welcomed us and we sat at a table near an elderly upright piano. The waiter brought us our drinks and stood watching the teenagers finish removing their stuff. As they, and their hangers-on, left, he sighed.

“That bad?” I asked.

He grinned. “Some of the people who play here have promise; others have to learn that volume is not sufficient to conceal a lack of practice, or talent.”

We were the only customers in the place, so he settled down at the piano and ran his fingers almost caressingly over the keys. I was surprised at how good the sound was until I noticed the name ‘Bechstein’ on it.

My second surprise came three seconds later when he started the introduction to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. When he finished the piece, some twenty minutes later, my wife and I applauded him with enthusiasm; we’d just listened to our own private recital.

Over a couple more drinks, I learnt he was the owner of the bar.

“I can’t make a living playing jazz piano here,” he told us. “People in Andalucia like flamenco and pop much more than jazz. So I started my little bar and it pays my expenses, and I sometimes get to help out young musicians and meet interesting people.”

“How many of the young musicians you helped have gone on to make a career in music?” asked my wife.

He shrugged. “Maybe two, out of a hundred or more. Not many people have the talent and stubborn determination to make it in music. It’s a difficult profession, as I illustrate only too well.

 

So, if you hear a man or woman playing or singing in a bar, pay them the courtesy of really listening. You never know; you might be hearing a talented, but rather blasé artist who, for some reason, didn’t quite make the big time; or an emerging talent who, within a few short years, will take the world by storm.


Mark Patrick


©  Copyright August 2020

 

 

So You Want to Become a Singer?

 

One of the big differences between the vocalists of yesteryear and those of today is in their musical education.

In the past, most singers were ‘naturals’ and their musical education was, in most cases, very informal; maybe they came from a musical family, sung in a church choir, or listened over and over again to 78rpm records of their favourite recording artist. Very few actually studied music or voice formally, except perhaps, for private teachers who came to their house a few times a week and were paid for by parents.


These days, singers, in general, are much more musically educated; they can read music, play instruments, have learnt breath control so as not to damage their voice, and can explain exactly what they want, in musical terms, to their backing musicians.


I’m not saying that today’s vocalists are ‘better’ than those of the past, but that their education gives them advantages; whether they take them or not is another matter. For what that training might not do is give them a ‘feel’ for the lyrics of a song, or the ability to put a song over to an audience so they fully understand all the nuances involved.


Billie Holiday was a great singer, but her voice was average at best, and in her later years, not even that. However, she could get inside a song, particularly ballads, and transmit the emotions and pathos the songwriter intended to the listener.


Frank Sinatra apparently practised breath control by singing while swimming underwater; but he couldn’t read music. When he once decided he’d conduct the orchestra for Peggy Lee’s album ‘The Man I Love’, Nelson Riddle, the arranger protested. Later, Nelson recounted how Sinatra had taken the scores home from the studio one Friday night and returned the following Monday with them scrawled over with balloon notes; ‘violins here’, ‘trumpets intro’ etc. Nelson Riddle added; ‘And to my, and many people’s amazement, he did actually conduct the orchestra.’


The natural, or basic, singing ability of the young vocalists of the past was refined in another manner; in singing with the dance bands. Here, surrounded by professional musicians, they really learnt their craft; the discipline of singing on time and in tune, and how to phrase under the limits of strict dance tempo.


Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee sang with Benny Goodman’s orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb’s, Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey’s and Doris Day with Les Brown and his Band of Renown etc. These, and the many other dance bands, gave the singers the practical training they needed to succeed.


The big bands are all pretty well gone now; too expensive to economically maintain, but the colleges and universities have attempted to take their place.


Unfortunately, sitting in a class on musical theory or voice training with a professional teacher is not the same as singing in front of a live audience night after night – the ‘feedback’ is very different.


Don’t misunderstand me, the colleges and universities do a great job and there are some very good younger (to use the term lightly) modern singers out there who have travelled this route.


A formal education is a help, especially if it is linked to raw talent and a burning enthusiasm to be a success. Then that talent and education has to be refined; singing to unappreciative audiences in hotel bars, clubs and pubs. Professionally singing, or playing, is not financially rewarding and few vocalists or musicians can actually live off their music, especially at first. So, at that same time as singing at night, there is the actual business of living; for the rent must be paid, and the electricity and phone bills, food has to be bought and money for travel etc. To survive, it’s working at a day job as a secretary, office-worker, barman, waiter, or just flipping burgers. And all the while singing or playing at night, and saving money to record demos for posting on YouTube, and maybe making enough for studio time to cut a CD for release on CD Baby, or Amazon etc.


The world has changed and, with that change, the form of getting music out to the listener has changed – it no longer needs a big record company behind a singer to become a success.


Some might not like it. I’m not sure I do, but I’m ancient, so my children tell me. I’m pretty sure the traditional record companies don’t like the new way of distributing music either – but it is, what it is.


In all this, one thing remains clear; to become a great singer of whatever genre; jazz, rock, pop, folk, country, reggae or even rap, takes a whole load of natural talent, a musical education, learnt skills in practical situations, a stubbornness that would make a mule jealous, and dedication to a goal you might never achieve.


And to actually make money at it takes a hell of a lot of luck, but then, it always did.


I wish all young vocalists and musicians, of whatever genre, all the best in their endeavours.

 

Mark Patrick

 

© Copyright June 2020