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

Here We Go!

Photo by David Nelson
Photo by David Nelson

 

It was time to rock. Our first number is almost always “Jungle Gym Jamming,” and I gave Miguel the tempo by speaking the phrase “Jungle Gym Jamming” a few times at the pace I wanted. He counted us in and we were into the show. At the song’s opening I was making eye contact with the audience, which was nicely situated on blankets and lawn chairs in the street. I was trying to get a feel for ways to delight this collection of families, pre-schoolers, tweens and teens. Interacting with Judy and Casey on stage helped to maintain audience interest, as well as adding some physical movements that match the lyrics. In “Jungle Gym Jamming,” I encourage kids to “stomp to the beat,” “jump up and down,” “play some air guitar” and “spin in circles.” So I physicalized these words to the best of my ability while singing and playing guitar.

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When I laid into the solo, Judy came to center stage to interact with me; I think that helps to intrigue an audience. And as with many good punk songs, I lead us out with several rhythmic chants of “HEY! HEY!” I’m used to hearing polite clapping between songs, but hearing young voices fully cheering was really something special! As I write this blog, I’m trying to remember the exact sound of all those kids going “WOOOOOO!”  and take that moment with me.

When I Say Marco, You Say Polo!

Photo by David Nelson
Photo by David Nelson

The moment when I truly knew we had the audience with us was in “Stay in the Pool,” which we performed second, when I got a call-and-response going: “When I say Marco, you say Polo! Marco! ____________! Marco! _____________!” – the shouts of “Polo!” back from the crowd were spirited and we kept that going for 4 times through (it’s only one time through on the record). This was our first-ever public, live performance of the full band arrangement of this song, and it went over as well as I had hoped. As soon as it ended, we segued right into “All Star,” and it was really gratifying to see all those kids and some adults mouthing the lyrics along with me.

My new guitar strings were slipping a little out of tune and I took a moment out to tune up. To make sure I didn’t lose the audience, I told the crowd what I was doing and I added a line I had picked up from another performer: “I tune because I care.” Now confidently in-tune, we launched into “Jackals on the Prowl,” which tends to be a crowd favorite in Montclair because the song’s namesake, the NJ Jackals play at the Montclair State University campus. This was our first public performance of this homegrown sports anthem with Casey in the band.

Our song “Window of the Train” was performed with dynamics – volumes rising and falling to give the impression of a train trip beginning, chugging along, and then coming to rest. I always get a kick out of looking over at Peanut during that song when I sing about “Grandma & Grandpa waving at me,” especially when my parents are with her, and I get to see them waving at each other.

Going Acoustic

Photo by David Nelson
Photo by David Nelson

The time was flying by and we reached the acoustic portion of our set. I quickly switched guitars and kicked us off into “Glass Half Full,” a song that deals with adult issues of sustaining optimism when things go wrong or our mood is off, but I feel it relates to everyone. Casey improvised a great call-and-response part in the verses and the band gave the song a great feel.

One of our great moments of connecting with the audience came as I introduced “The Pick Song.” I held up my pick and said “Don’t put the pick in your…” – then I heard all kinds of responses from the audience at once. The response that came out the clearest was “EYE!” – and with that I started strumming the intro and the band joined in. This song works like a good Pixar movie – it’s very kid-friendly and relevant to what we need to teach pre-schoolers when I let them strum my guitar – a friendly reminder not to put the pick in their mouths or drop it down the guitar’s sound hole. It works on the adult level too with clever setups to the variation of lyrics in the choruses that gets adults and teens laughing in anticipation of the punch line.

Photo by David Nelson
Photo by David Nelson

With time remaining for only one more song, but six more on the setlist to choose from, my inspiration to choose the last song came right from the sky. That beautiful waxing gibbous moon I could see rising over Manny’s Diner prompted me to play “Peek-a-boo Moon” as our closing number.

A Band on the Rise

It was clear all throughout the stage that as a band we continued to raise our game from one gig to the next, as we have since the beginning. This was only Casey’s second gig as a member of the group, and our previous full-band show was almost 2 months before this one. As she loosened up and had fun onstage, her vocals sounded freer and her harmonies blended with my melodies more naturally. She and Judy both continue to interact more with me onstage and create more moments. Miguel covered Ross’ parts ably and confidently and our band continues to improve as we work with both drummers. We’re heading into a busier time in our schedule with a growing confidence that we’re prepared for the growing opportunities ahead of us, one level at a time.

Packing Up and a Cool New Invitation

We quickly moved our gear off the street. I paused briefly to give Peanut a great big hug and got right back to moving equipment off the street so that the movie could begin.

On the sidewalk we started to pack up. During the packing, I was happy to be approached in conversation by Joann Smalls, a key player in the Montclair music scene. She invited us to perform at an outdoor festival for kids in September, which we’re now in the process of working out.

I could feel the benefit of having fulfilled Lisa’s request for live entertainment that night, and then having worked out the unique problems with the scheduling and physical logistics. Taking those obstacles in stride and then giving a heartfelt performance from everyone in the group led us to a good place and helped build constructive relationships with people who love the arts in our town like we do.

What requests have you come through on that ended up benefitting you? What challenges have you overcome happily, with gusto? What moments in doing your favorite things do you try to hold onto and remember? Do foresee events in your future where you can be more mindful of opportunities to soak up a little extra happiness?

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Aside

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 3 of 3

Last-Minute Breakthrough

At the end of the workday Monday, I had decided to record the vocals one last time before returning the microphone and accessories to the studio. The decision paid off. The hard work I did on the vocals the previous night had left me with good muscle memory for how to sing the parts, and it took no more than 45 minutes to end up with my best vocal take, the one that is on the final recording. I then packed up the microphone accessories to return to the studio across town. When I got there, Dave said, “Great! Where’s the mic?” Turns out, I hadn’t packed the mic in the bag with the accessories, so it would take one more round trip to straighten that out. I was positively exhausted, but glad I’d made good on my commitment to return everything.

In the Mix

The next morning, I exported the tracks from my Mac for Dave to add to the mix of the song. He set about mixing the tracks to a pleasing effect reminiscent of a Phil Spector production – bright, with vocal layers mingling nicely with many layers of instruments and textures. I imagined a splashing sound effect to introduce the tune, and Dave obtained that splash that you hear right at the beginning of the track. It took a few passes back and forth between Dave and myself by e-mail to review and perfect the mix, with my providing minor critiques along the way. The thinking was, this is a hit summer anthem in the making, which will be played on radio for generations of kids, so we need to make it a full realization of its potential – not necessarily every-hair-in-its-place perfect to the point where it’s sterile – but fully realized to the point where I’d have no regrets when listening to the finished track 10 years from now.

And Finally, a Master

When we arrived at the moment where I felt the recording lived up to its full potential, we passed the track along to Scott Anthony at the Viewing Room studio to make the final mix truly ready for radio, through a process called “mastering.” This process helps smooth out some of the little inconsistencies that crop up when several instruments and vocals are in the same mix – little “pop” sounds can be introduced into the mix that are removed in the mastering process. Choices about where the song gets louder or softer are finalized. The tone of the song is adjusted if it needs to be more of a “bright” or “round” tone.  If minor enhancements in the sound effect can bring a sparkle to the finished recording, the mastering engineer can add them. All records released by famous artists go through the mastering process and if you want your music to sound like it belongs on the radio if played before or after a famous artist, you need your recordings mastered too.

Here is the result of the mastered recording:

http://youtu.be/2u9_u2GBuEs 

A Work of Art

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Original photo before cropping

Since we were on such a tight schedule to release “Stay in the Pool,” we didn’t have the luxury of requesting a custom-drawn illustration as with our previous three releases. We would have to choose an existing piece of artwork to which we could buy the rights. I began searching for illustrations of kids in the pool. They were mostly reminiscent of Microsoft Office clipart, but I shared the best of the bunch with Amy, who believed we needed to go in another direction. She asked, “How about a dog in the pool?” Brilliant! I set about a search for such an image, and the photos were really striking. I ended up buying a license to use Mike Tan’s wonderful photo of a golden retriever swimming.

We cropped it to the standard square shape for CD covers and added our titles. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Overall, the making of “Stay in the Pool” was a very intense and wonderful experience that brought the family and the band closer together – an all-out effort to bring to life a moment of inspiration in the same summer as the idea “came bubbling to the top!” Now, you can enjoy this summer anthem while the days are still long and hot and the pool still keeps calling out to you and your kids!

What moments of inspiration have you had that required an immediate and all-out effort to fully realize them in a short amount of time? What creative endeavors have brought your family or friends closer together? How do you know when a creative project you feel strongly about is complete to its full potential, whether or not it’s “perfect?”

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

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

How We Discovered Kindie Music for Our Child, then Joined the Movement (Part 2)

The potential to be creative together was a spark in our marriage ready to ignite at any time, and Amy and I were throwing all kinds of sparks as new song ideas for our daughter seemed to come from everywhere. I couldn’t tap out the ideas on the iPad as fast as they were coming. “Oh, look Peanut,” I’d say, “there’s the bowling alley. Someday you’ll have a party there” – Boom! A Bowling Party song was ready to rock! “Wow, Peanut’s watching her cousin crawl under the glass table like it’s a glass bottom boat ride!” – A little research and a Glass Bottom Boat song was on its way. “OK Peanut, you can play my guitar with the pick; just don’t put it in your mouth…” and The Pick Song came into being.

This was the beginning of a project to share our own celebration of song and learning with our daughter and all the kids of the world who’d like to hear it (and their grown-ups too!) but our past experience making music for school kids helped. Since I picked up a guitar in my teens, I had always set aside at least one day a year to perform for my Mom’s elementary school classes and take questions and requests. When I married Amy and she got into teaching I made sure to take two days off for that purpose – one for my Mom’s school and one for Amy’s. When she took over the French program in pre-school, we would translate kids’ songs we knew into French, or make up new songs with a verse in English and a verse in French. We enjoyed making this music and our ultimate goal in children’s music at the time was to produce CD’s specifically for Amy’s classroom.

Jason_at_Mayfair at Travell School, Ridgewood, NJ 2002

Now, as we were rediscovering our own creative power and imagining a way forward with it, we were also getting to know about the players in kindie music. I had joined the Children’s Music Network and started to make some contacts and learn about a whole universe of artists making authentic music for kids that respected their intelligence and capacity to soak up new experiences. One band was very familiar for different reasons: They Might Be Giants, long known for their quirky and eclectic tunes in the 80s and 90s, had made a series of extraordinarily catchy and pleasing albums and videos for kids on the subjects of the alphabet, math and science. Dan Zanes, formerly of college mainstays The Del Fuegos, had also made the move from a successful pop/rock career to a way of making children’s music with integrity. Lisa Loeb and Elizabeth Mitchell also reinvented themselves to make music intended for families.

My networking and research brought us deeper into a universe of music for families and new names began to appear repeatedly and a wealth of songs became available to discover for our daughter, now a toddler. We’d repeatedly hear of The Not-Its, Joanie Leeds, Recess Monkey, and Milkshake. Their music carried a ton of energy and musicianship with lyrics easily relatable in a child’s life. We were a long way away from “Old McDonald” territory.

One band really stood out for us as an example of pouring absolutely everything into delighting kids: Princess Katie and Racer Steve. They brought precise, diverse and adventurous musicianship and enhanced it with colorful characters that are extensions of the singer and guitarists’ personalities. Katie was always an admirer of the way Princess Diana transformed royalty into a symbol of compassion for those with less and engaged the fantasies of little girls along the way. Steve developed a persona around his passion for the race cars he builds, capturing the imagination of little boys (and some future Danica’s too…). There were skits in between songs; full-blown cartoon characters were realized. The music was accessible and funny for kids and adults. There were songs about honesty and kindness, interspersed between clever wordplay in “Sand in my Sandwich” and the rich imagery of “We Dress Ourselves!”

We now had some important influences, models of how a kindie band could enhance family life.  We had a growing songbook of originals and covers. Our daughter would frequently request our new original songs, so we knew they were working.  At this point, we needed some guidance and we needed a band. The quest for mentors and musicians had begun.

To be continued…

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How We Discovered Kindie Music for Our Child, then Joined the Movement (Part 2)