Monday, December 30, 2019

Paying my dues to play the Blues

I have been playing music for a LONG time (over 30 years ) so I suspect that in many ways I am probably old-fashioned, or “old-school”, and probably not even aware of how different things are now than when I first started out…. But one thing I have noticed that has disappeared is the idea of mentoring, or apprenticeship  in music. 
When you read interviews with older Blues musicians, almost every  single one will mention a musician from an older generation who took them under their wing, who they followed around everywhere, in order  to learn the craft from them. You spent a while learning in the shadows, playing as a supporting musician before setting out on your own - “paying your dues”, learning how it’s done right.
It seems as though many new musicians I meet today sit at home and learn from youtube, then sit at home and record themselves for youtube, then start their own band ...Maybe it’s because live music is not as common as it was. To  find a mentor you need a “scene” , places where you know you can go to hear good music, and hang out there with people you want to learn from. Today it’s harder to find those places, harder to find the mentors - and much easier to play at home with the screens of social media ...but I think that part of the soulfulness of the music comes from having lived and experienced it in the real world.
My mentor in music was Ted Cooper. When I was a teenager, learning to play, Ted was the only guy in town playing the music I wanted to hear (playing the Blues in Jerusalem , Israel). I made it my business to go see him at every bar, cafe or street corner he played at. One day I came to his show with a record I had just bought, “Muddy Waters live at Newport” - Ted saw the music I was into and struck up a conversation with me. When I started bringing a harmonica to his shows , he’d tell me to come up and play a song or 2 with him (I don’t know why, I wasn't yet very good  at that point…) and after a while, I became part of his band. I spent 4 years playing small pubs, street corners, festivals - you name it - with Ted Cooper. I learned by watching and listening, and by making mistakes. Ted never told me what he was going to play, he’d just start a song, and I had to guess what key it was in and jump in. He never told me what to play - the only lesson he ever gave me was this: if I was overplaying , he’d turn around and put a finger to his lips “shh…” - probably the most valuable lesson any musician can get. 
Playing hundreds of shows , having to listen carefully as Ted changed songs around unexpectedly, watching for small clues and signs when he was going to stop or change - that experience was the school of the Blues for me. Later on, when I started my own bands, I knew how to do it, since I had learned from the best.
You can practice your instrument, learn the theory, read the right blogs - but nothing teaches you stagecraft like putting in the time learning from those who came before you, and there is no shortcut to experience. You gotta earn the mileage….

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