Monday, September 29, 2008

Who Needs Sleep?

I have a strange habit when I'm performing - I like to stand up to play. It probably comes from working in bands. Keyboard players aren't the coolest members of the band in any circumstance, but keyboard players who sit down are even less cool. So for probably 95% of the impro work I've done, I've been standing up.

You get a weird look from people when you are setting up, especially at a new venue. "Here's a chair for you, Kris." "No thanks, I like to stand." Who does that?

For me, standing up is part of always being on duty at a show. It's important to be alert and ready to respond to the MC or to a scene no matter what's going on. For me, I find that easier when I'm standing up. I feel like I'm more ready to react that way. And less likely to have a little nanna nap during a show.

I know when I have nervous anticipation about a scene that I (unintentionally) express that physically, by jumping around or pacing or planting my feet and rocking forward and back. Maybe sitting down I wouldn't have an outlet for burning off excess nervous energy.

I would not for a second advocate that all impro musicians stand up to play. Nor would I say that I ever, at any time, moved from the uncool set over to the cool set. I do, however, have a slightly better view of the cool kids when I'm standing. :)

There are certainly times when your attention can wander during a show. We did a Youth Theatresports show in the early 90's at Southbank, mc'ed by one Andrew Nason (very tall, very funny man). It was a beautiful day, lovely outdoor stage for the performers, sun glinting off of the river, families walking around... I remember some of the players were doing a scene where the characters were walking their dog through a park, so I was playing the prerequisite happy walking-your-dog-through-a-park music. And I was a bit hungry, and mmm what's that smell, that smells good, I wonder what that is, maybe bacon, maybe I'll go there for lunch, how long before we break, maybe a burger, and... when I snapped out of it, some manner of tragedy had taken place in the scene, and the players were at the funeral of their dog. Of course, I'd managed to stay on autopilot, and play walking-your-dog-through-the-park music the whole time. Makes for a particularly insensitive funeral scene. Sorry, kids.

The smallest thing said on stage can influence the music. You might have a scene between two people playing a married couple having a conversation, a nice balanced controlled scene, and there might be some quiet pleasant music behind the scene. Person one subtly tilts by saying something vaguely suspicious in conversation, but recovers, and person two didn't notice, and the scene plays on. The audience of course did notice the suspicious thing, and now they know that something is up, and they're starting to anticipate how that situation is going to unravel. If you were paying attention, you might start to drop a few discordant notes in to the scene to reflect that the scene isn't quite as balanced as it looks. If and when the scene does start to unravel, you could build on those discordant notes and start moving the music along to match the scene.

That's a pretty subtle example. More commonly emotion in a scene will change dramatically, like a new player entering the room and taking control, or an emerging conflict between characters. That can call for a more dramatic musical change. They tend to be obvious though, and just a change in the actor's tone of voice is enough to wake you up so you can change direction.

The moral of the story? Don't tune out during a show. The musician is the other player in a scene, and the MC's backup when they're talking, so you need to be on the ball for the whole show.


Robbie Ellis said...

I tend to sit so I can utilise my feet more effectively: in my typical full-show setup (2 keyboards in a chain with one master stereo output), I use my right foot for sustain and my left foot for master volume control using an organ-style swell pedal. So standing up isn't really an option there.

But even before I had my present setup, I always felt it difficult to use the sustain pedal effectively on a keyboard while standing up, especially over long periods when your weight is on one leg (and it usually ended up being my left heel). In some scenarios I just had to (a ska band, for example), but that wasn't too heavy on sustain anyway.

Kris said...

Hi Robbie - you're not the NZ muso the Zenprov guys talked about in their music podcast, by any chance? :)

I love the idea of using a volume pedal with your left foot. I've wondered about that before, but yep it isn't really compatible with standing up. Do you find it works well?

I've been thinking about why I don't seem to get fatigued standing up to play. I think I've figured it out; I use one of those X-style stands, and my teeny tiny Korg X5 sits on it and leaves about 10cm of the support beams poking out the front, on both sides. If I'm not playing at any given moment, I'm often holding both of those supports and putting my weight on my arms rather than my legs.

I have found that if I'm playing with weighted keys, I just can't stand up to play; you're using a bit more strength with weighted keys, and it just feels wrong to stand.

Robbie Ellis said...

I am the Zenprov Robbie muso, that's right. It's always nice to subscribe to international podcasts and find other listeners close-ish to home.

The left-foot volume pedal works a treat in transitions between scenes, cause I can do artificial fadeouts on non-weighted keys. It's a bit easier on a piano to do that sort of stuff, but it just doesn't evoke TV/radio-style narration as well.

Another great use for the volume pedal is at the top of the show when there's quite frequent switching between what the MC says and applause - keep it subtle under the MC and crank it for the applause. I can do that without using extreme levels of how hard and softly I hit the keys.

Tom Tollenaere said...

I got good experiences with a volume pedal as well. 2 potential drawbacks: a) sometimes I get interference (noise, buzzing sounds)and b) the screws tend to get loose - when that happens and I take my foot off the volume tends to creep up.

Got to be sitting though - but I prefer to sit; or rather lean - and I got me a really nice stool for that, I think the brand is STOKKE. They specialize in ergonomic sitting devices. This particular one is wobbly, it's got a rounded base, and it's telescopic, so you can adjust height. It allows me to wobble/stand/sit/lean against it, and allows me to use 2 pedals. Plus it's great for your back - I use the same thing as my computer desk chair. Kinda hard to explain, but here's a couple of pictures I took of the thing (could not find an internet reference right away). I *love* this thing and no I'm not paid by the company to spread the word :)

What I've also used is a mixer panel that allows me to lower audience/stage volume while keeping my personal audio return volume reasonable. That way I can quickly try e.g. a chord progression while players continue, without disturbing the audience (and players) with my experiments; once I got what I want to hear I up the audience/stage volume and off we go. I use a cheap old Spirit Folio stage mixer for that. It works, but I prefer a volume pedal, really.

Hey Chris you know I've been following your blog quite closely but this is my first comment - more to come, but keep up the good work!


Kris said...

Hi Tom - That stool looks really good! Is this it? "Standing support" would be great, I can really imagine standing/leaning on it while playing.

Aiee, not cheap though, £275.40 in the UK. I think that's more than my keyboard is worth :|

What you're saying about adjusting your own mix is interesting too. I've become accustomed to not having any foldback at all. Hmm, there's a post in there somewhere...

Tom Tollenaere said...

Yeah, that's the one - tough I seem to have a cheaper version; still pretty expensive but absolutely worth it. I also use it as my work chair, instead of an office chair, so I spend several hours a day on it. My back's been very grateful to Stokke!

With respect to foldback - I simply refuse to play without return. If anything, my return is the only sound source, and then it's positions so I can hear is (usually right behind me, facing the audience at a 45deg angle).

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