Fame and Obscurity in the Music Business

Many people strive for fame, but few can actually handle it. Fame invades your personal life, alters friendships, and creates a lot of trouble. This is why I have always made sure never to become famous!

Several recent films illustrate the contrast between some who became famous in the music business with tragic results, and others who toiled in relative obscurity with mostly positive results. The drama Love and Mercy, about Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, and the documentary Amy, about the late Amy Winehouse, tell parallel stories of too much fame achieved too fast without the necessary social support. Both artists had difficult fathers, domineering in his case, absent in hers, at least until she got famous. Both sought refuge in music, their true talent. The enormous pressure of producing for the music industry led to anxiety, mental instability, drug abuse, and eventual breakdowns. When you are famous everybody wants something, but nobody is truly looking out for you. When the crisis hits, you don’t know who your real friends are.

The documentary The Wrecking Crew, along with similar recent films about Stax, Muscle Shoals and others, tell a very different tale, a tale of working musicians producing legendary records mostly in complete anonymity. Put together, these films tell a kind of secret history of the American music business in the 1950s and 60s. Great session musicians and backup singers who have performed on hundreds of famous songs, film soundtracks, and television shows are brought out of the shadows to receive long overdue recognition. These are people who saw fame up close up, but still from the outside. Some, like Glenn Campbell of the Wrecking Crew, crossed over into stardom. Others tried and failed. Some are more famous now simply because of these films. Many were content staying in the shadows. Notably, many were able to make good money while having happy families and stable lives.

There is an indelible link in the public mind between great art and madness, drug abuse, and self-destruction. The truth is that although some artists fit this mold, most do not, including many great geniuses. There is no necessary link between art and madness. Most successful artists are more like the members of the Wrecking Crew: hardworking, detail-oriented, professional. Most people with mental illness, lacking artistic talent, suffer in anonymity. With better parents and better friends, Wilson and Winehouse could easily have turned out differently. Perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten famous, but that might have been better for them.

The members of the Wrecking Crew, played by actors, appear in Love and Mercy, recording the tracks for the legendary Pet Sounds album. At one point, one of them tells Brian Wilson that he is one of the best they’ve ever worked with, and they’ve worked with everybody. It’s the happiest Wilson looks in the entire movie. More than fame or public adulation, he craved the respect of his peers. Similarly, late in the Amy Winehouse film she is shown recording with Tony Bennett, who she idolizes. Nervous at first, she starts to gain confidence. After this session, she is briefly able to turn her life around. After her death, Bennett is interviewed. He loved her and is grieving. He compares her to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. He is the very image of the alternate path: managing your fame, focusing on the music, keeping your business together, and living to be an elder statesman. “You learn a few things” he says “if you live long enough”.

The Persistence of Muscle Memory

In my last post, I mentioned that many people who pick up an instrument that they used to play are surprised by how much they remember, even if it’s been years since they last played. The primary reason for this is the persistence of muscle memory. Muscle memory is the reason we never forget how to ride a bike. It’s why we’re able to keep walking while trying to remember whether we fed the cat this morning. Without muscle memory, playing music, as well as most other activities of daily life, would be impossible.

Of course, your muscles are not literally remembering things. Muscle memory happens in the brain, although it’s a bit unclear which parts of the brain are most responsible. The key thing is that it happens in the subconscious mind. When we see a toddler concentrating hard on learning to walk, that child is building muscle memory. Eventually, these movements are mastered, and no longer require concentration. Then the child can proceed to running, jumping, and more complex movements. Similarly, a beginning musician has to work hard just to play the right notes, while an advanced player has enough spare brain power to focus on making real music.

While playing music is physical like riding a bike, music is also a language. Advanced players engage the powerful linguistic parts of the brain as well as the muscle memory. Great players think of music in large chunks, like skilled speakers of a language think in terms of whole sentences instead of just words.

When I play an improvised solo, something I’ve done a great many times, the executive or conscious part of my mind doesn’t really do that much. I’m usually thinking something like: “Ok play something simple to start … here comes a tricky chord change … here’s the bridge … mistake! swallow it! … ok feeling good here … coming to the end, finish strong, and we’re done.” Meanwhile I’m listening to my fellow players, looking around the room, sometimes even letting my mind wander a bit.

Music is simultaneously a language, a physical activity, and an art form. In order to use it as an art, we need to overlearn it as a language and a physical activity, to activate our subconscious. Once we do this, we are able to use music for our own purposes. When we learn music, we are stimulating all of these different areas of the mind, teaching them to work in harmony with each other. This is when we start to achieve something powerful, uniting the body, the linguistic mind, the subconscious mind, the executive mind, and what some of us call the spirit, to express something wonderful.

I Used to Play in the School Band

When people find out I’m a music teacher they often tell me some version of the following: “Oh you play (flute, clarinet, saxophone)! I used to play (flute, clarinet, saxophone) in the school band. I really liked it but (I quit to play sports, budgets were slashed, or some other reason). I still have my horn though! I wonder if I could still play it.” I always tell these people that if they get out their instrument and start playing, they might be amazed at what they still remember, even if it’s been decades since they played. The reason is that muscle memory lasts much longer than regular memory. Your body remembers how to do things that your mind has long forgotten.

I used to play flute in the school band, and it was a great experience. It teaches you how to blend into an ensemble, how to follow a conductor, and how to read music. However it doesn’t do a lot to help you improve your individual technique. That’s why I started taking private lessons when I was fairly young. Once I started doing that, and practicing more regularly, I noticed that I got better much faster than most of the other students.

During my first couple of years of high school, I didn’t play in the band. I was making a lot of progress in my private lessons, and getting ahead of the other students who were only in the band. Music classes could be frustrating sometimes. We played the same pieces over and over every day, and often didn’t make much progress because people weren’t practicing at home. Being a school band director can be very stressful. It’s like teaching a regular class of 30-40 students who all have really loud noisemakers. Because of this, the directors would sometimes get pretty angry, or even melt down completely. It’s only now that I have some understanding of how difficult their jobs really were.

My high school had terrific music teachers, and when I started playing in the band again I enjoyed it and learned a lot. I was also in the choir and the jazz choir (did I mention that I was in choirs my whole childhood as well?). In college I picked up the saxophone and joined the jazz band, but I decided not to major in music so I eventually moved on.

I’ve been a part of one music project or another for most of my adult life, and I’ve learned that the basic things you learn in school band apply to any music group. Listen carefully, play in tune, play together, follow the director. Playing at home is wonderful, and helps you to get a lot better, but ultimately music is a cooperative endeavor. There is nothing like the feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself, contributing to the creation of beautiful music with people that you appreciate and care for. This shared experience is why I think of musicians all over the world, despite our differences, as part of one big family.

Music Lesson Anxiety

When I talk to adults who are interested in taking music lessons, I frequently hear some variation on the following story: “My parents made me take lessons as a child and I hated it. The teacher was very strict and critical, I hated practicing, and I quit as soon as my parents let me”. I call this phenomenon “Music Lesson Anxiety”, and it can easily lead to the dreaded “Music Lesson Trauma”, which renders the victim unable to pick up an instrument for life. It is a sad situation, because these people often love music, and may even have some musical talent, but their childhood experiences have convinced them that learning music is a tedious, stressful chore.

However there is good news. Music Lesson Anxiety can be cured! The cure is to make learning music fun, the way it should be. Many who suffer from this syndrome had to endure an older, classically-inspired approach that emphasized perfectionism, discipline, and intense criticism. This approach can work for some, very dedicated students, but for most people it is a disaster. Let’s face it, most people are not going to become professional musicians. These people want to play music because it is a fun, social activity. Subjecting these people to strict discipline is likely to turn them off to playing music forever.

I like to combat Music Lesson Anxiety with a few simple methods. First, I like to start with music the student already knows and appreciates. If a student can learn to play a song she likes after only a couple of lessons, that’s exciting! There’s no reason to force someone to play Beethoven if they don’t want to.

Second, I don’t set strict rules on practicing. While you can’t get better without practicing, you also can’t get better by feeling guilty about not practicing. I encourage students to set realistic goals about how often and how long they practice. Perhaps three times a week for half and hour. The fact is, you get better every time you play, even if it’s just for twenty minutes. In addition, you should have fun when you play, not just spend the whole time playing scales.

Third, I try to favor encouragement over criticism during lessons. I focus on what the student is doing right, and then make gentle suggestions for improvement. Once a student is more advanced, he may benefit from a more critical approach, but for beginners and adults who are starting over it is important to focus on the positive.

If you suffer from Music Lesson Anxiety or Music Lesson Trauma from childhood, there is hope! If your child is interested in music lessons, there are ways to teach them so that they will never experience these problems. Music shouldn’t cause anxiety or trauma. Music is fun. Music is beautiful.

The Sandwich Method of Teaching and Practicing

I am grateful to my friend Savannah Mayfield Roberson for introducing me to the sandwich method. Originally, she recommended it as a way to break bad news to somebody. You start by saying something positive, then you put the bad news in the middle, then you finish by saying something positive again. The good news is the bread, the bad news is the filling.

I’ve learned that I can apply the sandwich method to a lot of situations in life. For example, when I teach a music lesson. We start by doing something fun, like playing through the songs the student has been working on, trying out some new songs, exploring a new technique or interesting problem, and answering questions that came up from practice. Then comes the work part – some music theory, some scales or exercises, specific critiques of technical aspects of playing. Then we go back to the fun, specifically showing how the topics we covered in the work section can be applied to making real music, something more interesting.

Similarly, when I practice at home I like to start off by having some fun – improvising freely, focusing on the sound of the instrument, trying some new ideas. Then when I’m warmed up I work on memorizing melodies, learning new tunes, playing in keys that give me trouble, or refining some aspect of my sound. Then I have some more fun at the end – soloing on some of the tunes I’ve learned, trying to put it all together.

I recommend that my students use the sandwich method in their own practice. When we don’t have any fun, we get sick of things and lose our motivation. If we do nothing but have fun, it’s hard to get any better. So the key is to combine the two. By having some fun first, we get excited to learn and improve. By having some fun at the end, we leave practice with a good feeling, looking forward to the next time.

As I said, the sandwich method is useful for many aspects of life. From our social interactions to our personal projects, it is good to ease into the difficult part and then try to end on a positive note. Give it a try!