Author: McNeal, Brian

It's So Easy To Make It Difficult

I spent the weekend watching a lot of bluegrass on stage, some from the professional side of our genre and some from the still-amateur-but-quickly-moving-up side of the industry. It was a weekend with shining examples on both ends of the professional spectrum.

The headliner act, Hot Rize, wowed the audience time and time again with their alter-ego, show-stealing traveling companions; Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. It was a showmanship Master Class for every performer in the audience and a thrill for those who aren't performers.

What struck me most was how easy it looks when you're watching someone who has already paid their dues with miles and miles of road between shows over the years and hundreds of sound-checks before the shows and too-many-to-count last minute schedule changes, near disasters, equipment failures, personnel changes, inclement weather issues etc., etc.

Contrastingly, I also noticed, with no limitations, just how hard it seems when one hasn't had the benefit of all of those otherwise seemingly hardship situations.

This weekend's Pickin' In The Pines Bluegrass and Acoustic Music Festival in Flagstaff, Arizona featured their annual band competition with ten competing bands from all over the western United States. Some were retired seniors with a new musical hobby, some were family bands, some were college students, but all were there attempting to take home the thousand dollar first place prize. Professional judges, who've more than paid their dues, were on hand to pick the bands apart and find those weaknesses that separate the good from the not so good, the prepared from the unprepared and ultimately the top three and then the final competition winner.

What seemed to me to be more than obvious during the preliminary judging was the very evident lack of preparation from some of those bands who didn't come close to placing in the final round. More than half of the competing bands appeared to have been only partially prepared.

There were some in full stage costume (which demonstrates some forethought) but who didn't rehearse enough. There were some who had absolutely wonderful harmony parts, or stellar instrumentation, but no stage presentation. And on and on...just some weak link in their overall chainmail of showmanship that prevented them from placing.

All of the bands were told well in advance that the contest would be using a single mic set-up for ease of stage changes and and to eliminate sound-check delays as much as possible. Yet it was obvious to me that many of the bands had no actual experience working in a single-mic arrangement.

Poor distancing to the microphone seemed to permeate most of the bands - either too close or too far.

Among the bands with multiple vocalists attempting to do harmony, distance to the mic relative to the others - caused poor blending which was the norm among those who didn't place in the finals. It seemed to be reminiscent of my college days when some of my fellow students would fail to study during the term but attempt to pass the final on nothing but luck.

While there may be a certain amount of luck involved in a band's career by being in the right place at the right time, there is no replacement for doing it the hard way studying.

I remember seeing my very first modern day single-mic performance and being absolutely awed by what transpired. It was the late Ken Orrick's Lost Highway band. Later I got the chance to compliment banjoist Dick Brown on the show and asked him about the situation. He told me it was totally unplanned ... one of those last minute circumstances beyond control where the sound company didn't have enough equipment to set up for multiple stages and Lost Highway's first show of the weekend was on a secondary stage in an old historic church where the acoustics were already good for natural sound so only one mic got placed on the stage. Dick said that they'd never worked a one-mic set-up before. They did it on the fly. My conclusion was that only because they'd already paid their years of dues in professional bands were they able to handle the last-minute curve thrown at them. All of the rest of the show was down-pat so working a one-mic situation was not too difficult. Dick said they all knew when their own parts were due in each song so the only thing they needed to do was position themselves into the right spot on stage to be in front of the mic when it was time to be there ... and hope that none of the others zigged when someone else zagged. The conclusion to this little side story is that I have yet to see a better one-mic performance and this one was from a band who'd never worked that setup before.

That is why it looks so easy to do when one is watching a professional and it seems so hard to do when one is still in the up-and-coming ranks. It's the amount of rehearsal time and the dry runs before the show that make it appear so effortless. It the number of less-than-ideal situations that a band goes through and draws from to polish their craft to spit-shine their presentation. It's the paying of the dues.

Yes, it's easy to make it difficult! Don't pay your dues! My advice to those who didn't place in the finals this past weekend (and to any performer in a contest situation) can only be that you're already a winner if you came away knowing more than before you entered. If you used the experience to learn, if you got the chance to ask the judges about your performance and got feedback by which you can make appropriate adjustments to your performance, then you're going to go into the next contest or performance with a much better start ... like starting a long distance race a lap ahead of the rest.

Best of luck in all of your performances and one day, I hope to see you sitting in the judges seat passing on what you've learned from paying your dues.

Have A Great Weekend!
-Brian McNeal / Prescription Bluegrass
Posted:  9/22/2012

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