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?

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

The Thrill of Freedom, Kindie Music and Pancakes!

"I love when my music is an occasion for new friendships" - Jason Didner

Last Saturday night was a night of firsts: my first solo performance representing the Jungle Gym Jam, the Broad Street IHOP’s first engagement of a musician for its long-running Family Fun Night series, and my first time ever performing using a wireless microphone or guitar transmitter (I used both).

For years I had seen the flyers up in the IHOP advertising a family fun night with a balloon artist or face painter and had thought, “hmmm, they should have a musician. I’ll bet I could do that…” but left the thought there. Of course, I didn’t identify myself as a kindie artist at that time. In recent weeks I rekindled the thought since I consider IHOP to be a family-friendly tradition and a great place to introduce parents and kids to our songs live, in-person and with ample opportunities to interact in between sets.

After a few enthusiastic phone calls and e-mails with the brothers who own the local franchise, we made a go of it. Then began the considerations: Do I bring a speaker system? I knew that this was a restaurant, not a nightclub, so volume needed to be kept low enough for patrons to be able to enjoy dinnertime conversation. I also knew it was a big restaurant divided into two rooms that have little to no line of sight between them. The first consideration led me to think about bringing no amplification at all. The second consideration raised the concern that every time I visit one room in the restaurant, the other room would get no trace of my performance, which could have a disorienting effect for the audience, especially in the middle of a song. But even if I brought a conventional PA system with a mic on a  stand, that would raise the problem: where do you set up so everyone who wants to see you perform can do so, especially kids who would have their back to you in a booth? My answer was to get a wireless headset mic and a wireless guitar transmitter, so I could move freely around the space.

Jason Didner of the Jungle Gym JamFor the show, I wore my new green custom Converse sneakers for the first time and picked up a cool accessory at Party City – a red bracelet that lights up when you move your wrist. Perfect for strumming, I thought!

Setup went smoothly and Viola, the restaurant’s manager, greeted me very warmly, offering me coffee or anything I might want. I tested the wireless equipment in the larger space, sound checking with the Beatles song “Eight Days a Week.” The gear seemed to work fine with one exception: my range of how far I could walk with the guitar transmitter was limited. If I walked to the back corner tables, the signal would cut out and then come back as I got closer to the receiver. The microphone seemed to work from absolutely everywhere.

Just before showtime at 6:00, there were a few other families with kids in the venues, along with some all-adult parties. Then, my wife Amy, my mother Linda and 2-year-old Peanut arrived and got a table. I gave out some maracas and tambourines I brought for audience participation. Soon, I launched into “I’m a Believer” to start the set. The freedom of being able to move around among the audience was exhilarating! I was spinning, dancing, making eye contact with families wherever their tables were, in both rooms of the divided restaurant.

More families arrived during the course of the first set and going into the second set. One family had a middle-school aged boy and his younger sister. My first thought was to work in some songs that would appeal to the kids in the older range of our audience. When I launched into an Elvis medley, I was pleased to hear a maraca played with expert timing and a great flourish on the song ending. I asked our young teen if he was a drummer, and he said yes. It’s always great to jam with young student musicians and feed off their energy!

One couple with a young school-aged son and a baby daughter arrived. The mom told me between sets that they had seen our calendar entry in Baristanet and that they liked both IHOP and family music so this Family Fun Night was a natural fit for them. During that break I took Peanut around to all the tables that had kids and mingled a bit. Peanut was thrilled with this and kept telling my mom, “People! People!”

A great moment occurred during the second set when one mother and her three kids were getting ready to leave. While they were waiting to pay the check, her kids were dancing to my tunes. My mom took Peanut for a walk around the restaurant and my little one joined right in with her new friends’ dance moves. I love when my music is an occasion for the beginning of new friendships!

At the close of the set, I sat down to have my dinner with my family and reflect on the wonderful moments of the show. The next day I stopped back in at the IHOP to follow-up with one of the franchise owners and plan our next steps. I’ve been invited back to perform on Saturday, August 24. I gladly accepted and we will make a few adjustments. The challenge is to lower the volume of the PA system where it was set up by the front counter and still be audible at the back tables of the restaurant. I believe the answer will be the addition of more speakers in the far corners of the restaurant, with each one at a significantly lower volume. The challenge is to honor the wishes of people coming to their favorite restaurant to eat and enjoy their conversations while putting on a dynamic and engaging show that encourages kids to make new friends and enjoy a memorable night out with the family.

The Thrill of Freedom, Kindie Music and Pancakes!