Umbrellas Outside the Mall – Kilkenny, Ireland – PPAC Challenge

Sure, this doesn’t fit my usual music themed content but I thought it was beautiful and I wanted to share. So here is another PPAC Challenge entry.

My wife and I strolled the streets of Kilkenny during my first trip to Ireland. She is the daughter of Irish immigrants and Kilkenny was the home of her father many years ago.

She tried to find the street where her grand parents used to live, even though she knew the house was no longer there. It had been razed years ago to build a bustling city block.

She wasn’t exactly sure where we were going, but she knew there was a mall there now. It didn’t take us long until we we found this alley, leading to the mall which stands where her grandparents once lived. The colorful umbrella installation was a delightful surprise and it brightened our day, even if the sky was grey.

Kudos to whomever is responsible. Well done!

Welcome to Plan M

Maybe you had big dreams of being a rock star, country diva, or rapper when you were a kid.  So many of us shared that dream.  For most people, this dream was fleeting.  It appeared suddenly as you rocked out into your hairbrush microphone in front of an audience of one in the mirror, then it faded away as mysteriously as it appeared. 

For some of us of though, this dream persistent.  We rushed home from school so we could get to band practice sooner or woke up in the middle of the night with a lyric we were too afraid we forget- only to find that we couldn’t get back to sleep and had to stay up all night to finish the song.  For us, music was career Plan A.

Perhaps you took music lessons or maybe you were self-taught.  Either way, try to remember what it felt like the first time you were able to honk out a vaguely discernable melody on your instrument.  Try to remember first time you created musical harmony with another person’s voice.  Remember the tingles that shot down your spin the first time you played E power cord through an overdriven amp or spit out an improvised rhyme that was so inspired and fresh that you surprised yourself with how creative you could be.  Think hard.  Can you remember it?  Can you feel it?   If you’ve read this far, I’m willing to bet that you can– and that chill is still on your spine, that’s the magic coming back.  Revel in it.

Now, unless you’re a professional working musician, you probably moved on from your musical dreams at some point.  Maybe you retired your guitar to its case under the bed when you left for college.  Maybe you did musical theatre in a community group for a bit but gave it up after having kids.  Maybe you grew tired of trying to sing over the roar of the coffee grinders at open mic nights.  Regardless of your path, at some point you probably abandoned your musical ambitions and moved on to your Plan B.  We all promised we wouldn’t do it, but eventually the pressures of the real world beat us down. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the real-world and you’re an adult.  You did what you had to do, and that’s ok.  You took a job in a bank, or a factory, or hospital.  Hopefully whatever you do pays the bills and brings you fulfillment.  Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.

Photo by Suvan Chowdhury on Pexels.com

After transitioning to Plan B, your life went on.  You moved to a new state, you found a different career, had kids, got divorced… who knows, but you eventually landed on Plan C, then you adapted your life to overcome some new challenges and found yourself on Plan D.  The cycle continued.

You struggled, you persevered, and now here you are today surfing the web to find ways to enrich your life.  Perhaps the hair on the back of your neck is still on end from a few paragraphs ago.  I’m hoping I triggered a memory so vivid and rich that you’re beginning to realize how much happiness music used to bring to your life, and maybe you’re feeling inspired to recapture that feeling.  If so, this blog is for you – to help you find your Plan M- creating a more meaningful life through the magic of music.

Right about now you’re probably intrigued by the idea of being more musical, but the pressures of the real world are already starting to make you doubt yourself.  You’re thinking you don’t have the time, or the money, or the talent. Stop that! Stop it now! 

I’ll be honest up front; I’m not going make you into the next Kendrick Lamar here.  That would take a lot of time and effort, and quite frankly, you and I don’t have that kind of time or talent.  We’re looking to find joy here, not to become rich and famous.   You don’t need talent, money, or even lots of time to find joy.  Talent is obviously optional for happiness (just look at all the terrible singers who love doing karaoke).  Many of the ideas you find here won’t cost you a penny.  Some of the ideas described here require minimal amounts of your time.   Some of them you can do with your kids, while other ideas will be better experienced alone, and some will be better in big celebrations with all your loved ones. I’m going to do my best to cover as many genres as I can too.  There is a little something for everyone. Leave your insecurities and the door and enjoy.

 Let’s begin.

{On May 7, 2022 I posted a response to this entry. If you’d like to read more, please be sure to read “What Can I Do For You? What Can You Do For Me? How Can You Help Yourself?” Enjoy!}

The Legend is Born As the World Falls Apart – Hootenanny 2020

April 20, 2022

One winter after I graduated college, the drummer from my college band invited me to a New Year’s Eve jam session in Ithaca, NY. His buddy was throwing a party in this farmhouse out in the woods and my buddy was kind enough to invite me as his guest.

We drove down the winding snow-covered roads of upstate New York. Eventually, we pulled up to this beautiful old farmhouse. We dragged our gear up to the attic where we found a drum set and a ton of amps were already there. People trickled in as the sun when down and the jam session got started. We played all night, even when the ball dropped in NYC.

I’ve never been much good at improvisation, but I took a few solos. I embarrassed myself a bit… not because I was all that terrible, but because the caliber of musicians was really good. There were great minds and talents in the room that night and it was a blast. I don’t want to name-drop, but there were some people in that room who would one day become significant folks in the music business. Of course, none of us knew it then, but looking back at the talent that was in that room I shouldn’t have been surprised.

In the morning, we drove back through the snow to Buffalo and life went on, but I never really forgot it. It was very different than my experience playing in bands had been where we wrote and rehearsed every note (with just a few occasional sections for improv). I was enamored by the feeling of awe that washes over when everyone comes together to create those magical musical moments, out of nothing.

Flashforward 20 years- I’m playing in a band called Featuring No One. FNO is a band that rarely plays a gig. Instead, we’re focused on building a community of friends and musicians. Occasionally we write and record a song. Each time we do, we always invite a friend to be featured on the track, kind of like the hip-hop folks do. Except, for us, it’s not a cheap promotional stunt. We’re not famous, and I don’t expect we will ever be, but we’re going to have a ton of fun and share the joy with those we love.

The early days of FNO were in my DC apartment. We’d sit with acoustic instruments and write songs, then if we had something we wanted to record we’d move to another location where we could do basic tracking. Once we had the rhythm tracks recorded we’d recruit a friend to sing or play a solo.

I’m not sure how we never got a noise complaint. I think my neighbors must have been saints. (Thanks Quebec Housers!) We recorded a few tracks and dumped them onto SoundCloud. It was a blast. I still have vivid memories of Jehn tracking vocals in the bathtub of my studio apartment. Those were the days, and she rocked it.

Flash forward a few more years later, I bought a house with my wife. Suddenly FNO had the space to play, and enough distance from my neighbors so we could get loud. Our focus shifted more to building chemistry within the core group. We stopped writing songs for a while and focused on rehearsing cover tunes. Sometimes we’d experiment with different instruments. We had the freedom to learn and grow and develop our skills and chemistry.

Eventually, we started working on a setlist, but we still had no intention of playing shows. We just wanted to be able to competently play songs we loved. Eventually, we had 10 songs, then 15, maybe more.

This was great fun and very fulfilling, but eventually, we started to get detached from the community that we had when we invited Jehn, Alex, Ashley, and Drew into the sessions. There were five people core in the band and those same 5 people came to rehearsal (well 4 of us, one member moved out of town, so his role changed a little… more about that later). Our other friends weren’t involved anymore. I’m not sure if that bothered the rest of the band, but it bothered me. So, I started strategizing.

I recalled that night in Ithaca, NY. I wanted to share that live experience with my friends and family so I pitched an idea to FNO. I suggested a Hootenanny, where all our friends could join in and be a part of the band for the night- whether they had talent or not. They were in.

We sent an evite to 30-40 of our friends. We instructed them to bring whatever instruments they had. If they didn’t have any they could sing. If they couldn’t sing, they could still come and listen and party. We published our setlist and encouraged people to learn the tunes and plan to join in.

I set up the PA with a few extra mics and put all my extra guitar amps out. The basement was set up for a full five-piece rock band (plus special guests) and the living room upstairs was set up for an after-hours acoustic jam session.

The night of Hootenanny started a little bit like a house party gig. FNO jammed and our friends and family politely listened. After a little encouragement and lots of liquid courage, a few of our more daring friends started to join in.

The flood gates burst open when our buddy Josh showed up with his bass. He pluigged in and joined in as though he’d been rehearsing with the band for years. Josh is a gigging musician with a vast repertoire. He made it look easy, and when others saw him join in, they felt empowered to do the same. Suddenly everyone was grabbing a tambourine or a microphone, and then the party really came to life.

Occasionally someone would offer to lead a song, we’d do our best to follow. Sometimes it was ok, sometimes it was terrible. It didn’t matter, it was loud and fun.

That was early March 2020. I don’t need to tell you what happened about a week later. That’s all chronicled elsewhere. Our little Hootenanny was the last bit of socialization that some of us had for quite some time.

Now I don’t know if people look back at it nostalgically because of everything that happened after. Maybe they really had as much fun as I did. Regardless, throughout the lockdowns, people would chat me up over Zoom calls to talk about how much fun they had that night and to beg for me to host another one soon.

Well after about a year of lockdowns we started planning for the next Hootenanny. FNO wrote a setlist and started learning the tunes. We even added some fresh blood to the band. Now I’m happy to say that the second Hootenanny is about to happen next weekend.

It’s a really easy theme party to throw if you’re already set up for a band, even easier if your friends all play acoustic instruments. If you’re looking for a way to make music play a bigger role in your happiness, this could be a GREAT way to do it.

I’ll try to post the evite, setlist, and other information in the information below so you can use it as a template for your own Hootenanny. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Making Music in Adulthood

April 19, 2022

I played in a number of bands through my teenage years and through college. Some were more successful than others, but none of them had me on the fast track to super-stardom. Bummer.

The band I played in during college was kind of successful. I used to look forward to weekly rehearsals and gigs, and I really missed the community that arose around us after graduation. Sure, we were playing gigs mostly in our small college town, but we sold out the clubs each time we played. We had a consistent fan base who wanted to hear our music and be part of our “scene.”

I don’t want to mislead you into thinking this was some grand endeavor. The biggest club probably held 400-500 people. Many of them were much smaller. The size of the crowd didn’t really matter though, those were OUR fans. All 500 of them, and we were part of their community and that was special.

Predictably, that band broke up after graduation and I moved to the city to start the transition to adulthood. I had a job and a few friends and family in town, but otherwise my life was a blank slate. I wanted to make music, but I didn’t know any musicians in the area. Sure, I could have started over, but that was daunting and to be honest, I wasn’t sure that I had the kind of energy it would take to create a new band from scratch. After all, now I had real-world responsibilities and I couldn’t stay out all night at the clubs like I used to do.

One day I ran into a buddy from college. He was the founder of our college acapella band. He and I toyed with the idea of starting a band for a while. We experimented with different lineups (including using a drum machine when no suitable human was available). We played some gigs and drank some beer. It was fun, but it was pretty clear it wasn’t going anywhere. Eventually, we stalled out.

One day our little band decided to do a little recording session with some of our friends, friends who had some musical talent but weren’t really interested in being in a band. It was more of a goof than anything.

We wrote a comedic parody of U2’s “One” with lyrics about Elliot Spitzer’s sexual proclivities. We were pretty proud of the outcome, so we sent it to our local radio station hoping they’d play it on the morning show. We got an email back from the DJs saying how great they thought it was, but it was too spicy for radio. So, we made a video slideshow to go with it and threw it up on YouTube. It got to about 70,000 hits and then it got taken down due to copyright violations. We didn’t understand that we couldn’t use photos from the media. Oops! Lessons learned.

Anyway, things fizzled out for that band shortly after that. We called it quits- for a while. Then one day my buddy’s wife suggested that we give it another go. She said that her husband was happier when he was making music and she really wanted to encourage him to have that kind of influence in his life.

I’m not sure that I had the self-awareness at that moment to know that I felt the same way, but I do now. In fact, that moment has hung with me for 15 years. I thought it was amazing that she supported us making loud noises in her basement, while she watched their two young girls upstairs. She was trying to let her pursue the things that made him happy in life. She did it with a smile (even though I know she didn’t appreciate it when we vibrated the wine glasses off the wine rack).

Sure, that says a lot about her. Clearly, she’s an amazing wife. (My wife is similarly supportive and exceedingly awesome like that as well. It’s part of why I married her!) Perhaps more importantly though is the realization that even though we weren’t kids anymore, even though we had given up on Plan A- Be a Rockstar, rule the world and we had moved on to Plan B- get a job pay bills. We didn’t have to give up on the music. We just had to find a way to be more creative about how we did it. That’s what this series of articles is going to be about… how to keep the moment up with music after your life changes.

Maybe you had a Plan A that led you into a successful career. Great for you! Maybe your life took you down some winding roads and you found your success on the second or third attempt. Maybe you’re still trying to find your path. Either way, if you’re looking to make music a bigger part of your life, and make your life happier, then this series is for you. This is how to move on to Plan M.