Making Moments on Movie Night in Montclair (Part 1 of 2)

Last Friday night’s performance at the Montclair Film Festival’s Summer Screening was all about creating moments – and, like all do-it-yourself performance propositions, it was also about problem solving, determination, and connecting with the joy of what we’re doing. These themes played off each other in the weeks running up to the show and straight through the performance and packing up afterwards.

A Cool Invitation

I was honored that Lisa from the Montclair Film Festival asked me to perform at one of this year’s outdoor summer screenings, as a follow-up to last year’s solo acoustic performance of mostly 50s rock before a screening of Grease. This time, the movie was Men in Black and the band was to perform from 8:00 until about 8:45, with the movie set to start about 9:00 when it got dark enough outside.  The location would be Montclair’s bustling Church Street with its sidewalk cafes, boutiques, and art galleries. The one-way street would be closed to car traffic and a giant screen would be placed in the roadway.

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam

The opportunities to create wonderful moments were apparent from the early stages of communicating with Lisa to make the show happen. Then, the challenges began to surface: Can the whole band make it? What if I play as a solo or duo? We’re a kids’ band whose song themes are inspired by my toddler. How can we adapt our show to create appealing moments for tweens (upper-elementary and middle-schoolers) who will more likely be at a sci-fi comedy thriller like Men in Black, which begins past the bedtime of our usual audience? Do we have all the necessary equipment to pull off this show ourselves?

Preparing for New Situations

Scheduling problems came to light: Everyone could make it to the gig except our drummer Ross. So I reached out to Montclair drummers Miguel Rodriguez, a rock drummer who is in the Parents Who Rock organization with me, and Bruce Tyler, a jazz/blues drummer who seems to be at every musical event in and around town. Bruce couldn’t make it; Miguel had a potential conflict that might require some fancy footwork on everyone’s part, including the Film Festival organizers. He was set to run sound for a performance elsewhere in Montclair that night.

Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam - Miguel and Jason

Fortunately, Miguel was able to reschedule his other commitment and dedicate the whole night to sitting in with us. Now we had a new dilemma: He could only rehearse with us once: the week of the gig, on a night no one else could make. So, I set up a one-on-one rehearsal with Miguel. He was a quick study and we ran through every song once, tightening up some spots where the music changes and working out the song endings. Peanut listened in to our session on the basement stairs with Amy, staying up pretty late. When she decided it was time for bed, I took a 5-minute break to take her upstairs, give her one last change and tuck her in. Amy read Peanut a book while I went back down to complete our rehearsal. I was feeling a lot more confident about how Friday would work out.

I got in one more rehearsal with Ross, Casey and Judy on Thursday and we were mostly able to concentrate on running through the setlist, which I had figured would be about 14 songs for a 45-minute set. It was a good opportunity to go back over some songs we hadn’t rehearsed together in a while. We also worked out some songs from my pre-Jungle Gym Jam repertoire, like Jackals on the Prowl and Glass Half Full. At the end of rehearsal, I spoke with the band about the importance of creating moments on stage – with eye contact and interaction among us onstage. This was as ready as we were going to be for Friday without everyone ever being in the same rehearsal at the same time. I prepared with everyone as best I could and took the rest of the outcome on faith.

Another problem to solve and an opportunity to create moments came up. We knew we’d be performing out in the street at dusk with dim street lighting that would render us nearly invisible to an audience. I researched lighting options that could be used in a special situation like this, and came up with 150-watt clip-on work lights from Home Depot, along with compact fluorescent bulbs that would not burn as hot as incandescents. I would clip these lamps to the speaker poles to light the band. On the night of the gig, those lights helped us make the most of each onstage moment to delight the audience.

Clip-on light from Home Depot

Getting There is Half the Battle

Friday, as we drove to the venue, we saw that Church Street was physically blocked off with nobody attending to the street’s entrance. With three cars full of musical equipment, this put us in an awkward position with how best to unload our equipment and bring it to the stage. I ended up making two trips from the 3rd floor of the parking garage (taking the elevator) to the spot on Church Street where we’d be playing, first carrying our PA system, and then on a return trip, carrying my guitar amp.

Judy was certain that there must be a way to get her car closer to the stage. Just as we were discussing it, Lisa greeted us and I asked her if we could move the barricades to get the band loaded in. Lisa agreed and we had some great help from a Montclair police officer in getting Judy’s car parked near the stage. We unloaded the rest of the equipment and I threw my entire concentration into setting up our gear as quickly as possible. We were getting close to show time and my bandmates asked where Miguel was. I said I couldn’t worry about trying to track him down; he had earlier posted an announcement about the gig on Facebook so I was certain he didn’t forget. I wasn’t willing to take my eye off the ball in terms of setting us up for the show. As I was connecting the cables and getting ready to start up the PA, Miguel arrived with all his drums neatly stacked on a hand cart. He did a quick setup and was ready to go as soon as our microphones and guitars were on and tested.

I decided to give my guitar wireless rig a second chance, this time using it for the electric guitar. After all, I wouldn’t be moving around as large of a space this time. Even in a confined space, the guitar wireless system was dropping out for a moment here and there, depending on where I moved. This experience confirmed my need to upgrade to a better wireless system, which I just did today. I enjoy the freedom of being untethered from a cable, which frees me up to give kids my very best stage presence.

I hooked up the lights, which, judging from the photos, gave us more the look and feel of a real show on a summer evening. I laid out my setlist (after a little scrambling to remember where I put it). We were ready to rock!

To be continued…

When you’ve prepared a special event – a party, ceremony, corporate event or concert, what problems have you had to solve? How did you do it? Did you keep your composure? How much could you work out in advance? How much did you have to take on faith? How did your preparation lead to creating unforgettable moments?

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Making Moments on Movie Night in Montclair (Part 1 of 2)

The Making of “Stay in the Pool” – Part 2 of 3

Studio Night

We carried a lot of excitement into the studio, knowing what a strong song we had. We also brought a great deal of confidence to the session, having done a full-band session before when the band was very new.

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Judy (bass) and Ross (drums) have become very adept at working out nuances to enhance the rhythms for each record that we make, experimenting with starts and stops that serve the song and communicating very clearly with each other and the rest of the band how we can work the part together.

Casey brought a sense of calm and quiet confidence that seemed to elevate all our abilities to do our best work. Our producer, Dave, kept the mood light and celebratory while also challenging us to keep up the pace and energy of each song from opening note to ending tag line.

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We had a very specific goal for our studio recording: record Judy’s bass and Ross’ drums live in the room. My guitar and vocals and Casey’s guitar performance would just be a means of giving Ross and Judy a frame of reference for where we are in the song and capture Ross and Judy’s genuine experience of recording their parts while the whole band plays together live in the studio. This process is known as “recording the basic tracks.”

Once we got a basic track that made us happy, we recorded the group shouts – the “YEAH!” after the lyric “‘Til my fingers get pruny” and the “NO!” response to “Do you think that sounds looney?” We also recorded the “POLO!” responses to the “Marco!” shouts in my lead vocal. It was definitely a loose, fun moment shared among the whole band after having been under the microscope to deliver the perfect musical performance.

Doing our Homework

We were coming up on the weekend and Dave had travel plans. He and I were both reluctant to let several days pass without progress on this time-sensitive tune, so we came up with the idea that I would rent his professional-grade studio microphone and pre-amp (a device that gives a microphone that full and warm tone you’re accustomed to hearing on professional recordings). Casey and I could then record into my Mac at home (I use GarageBand) along with Ross’ and Judy’s basic tracks. I record the final guitar tracks into GarageBand from home because I can get just as good a result at home as in the studio and not have to mind a time limit; this time the vocal was to get the same treatment.

Casey came over on Sunday night and we were off to a fast start. Casey added her extremely tasteful doo-wop backing vocals in the verses, some nice ooh’s and ahh’s were they would fit right in, and some big harmonies in the chorus that give that section of the song the feel of a big show-stopper.

Recording a second harmony vocal layer below the original layer would prove much more challenging. Casey would take on the second layer as well as the first to ensure a consistent blend of voices.  It took hard work and a willingness to try out different options that would blend with both Casey’s upper harmony and my lead vocal. At the end of 3-1/2 hours hammering out the vocals for the song, we were ready to capture Casey’s acoustic guitar part, which we recorded easily. Casey then moved over to the keyboard, where we chose the tone of a bright grand piano to complement the guitar parts. She laid out a rhythm pattern she had in mind, which inspired me to create a piano track of my own that incorporated her idea with some of my own, including slides down the keyboard and arpeggios, which are chords that are broken out to individual notes played one-at-a-time to imply the chord, instead of being played all at once.

Casey went home at around midnight. I had work the next morning, but knew that I’d have to return the rented mic the next night, as its owner would need it in the studio. So, I set out to record lead vocals at midnight on Sunday night, feeling a slight vocal strain from guiding Casey through her parts which were outside my vocal register. By 2:00 AM, I was re-recording the song’s chorus, piece by piece and was close to finishing the lead vocal – and then I heard something unusual for 2 AM: footsteps upstairs. Amy had woken up to hear Peanut wide awake and calling out for me. My last shot to record the vocals at home had seemingly come to a screeching halt. I tended to Peanut, giving her milk, reading books to her and starting her favorite movie, “Yogi Bear,” which we must have watched together over a dozen times by now. 90 minutes later, Peanut told me she was ready to try going to bed again. By the time she fell asleep, it was 3:30 and I insisted on completing the take. When I went downstairs to re-record my chorus part in one last spot, I found that the 90-minute downtime helped my voice bounce back a little, so I re-recorded all the choruses to make them sound consistent. Now, I knew there was precious little time for any sleep before having to get up and go to work. I also had a sense I should squeeze in some time the next night to re-do the vocals before returning the equipment to the studio.

To be continued…

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The Making of “Stay in the Pool” – Part 2 of 3