Archive for July, 2012

July 25, 2012


As you might have guessed, I’m not much of an athlete. But I’m definitely inspired by the men and women who’ve trained most of their lives to represent their nations and showcase their talents at the Olympic Games. I would never compare myself to Olympic superstars such as Michael Phelps or Apolo Ohno, but I do believe that whether you’re a serious athlete or a serious musician or composer, many of the same tenets apply.

In no particular order of importance, I’ve found that:

• Having a cheering squad is highly desirable. Early in life, I knew I wanted a career in music after my godmother took me to a series of Broadway shows and dinner-theater performances. My parents, like many responsible adults, were not necessarily convinced that this was a good idea. I think they feared that I’d end up as the stereotypical “starving artist.” Yet in my mind, I knew that I was destined to entertain people.

There were times that their prediction seemed to be accurate, but I was stubborn or crazy enough to keep doing what I wanted to do. And while they may have been thinking, “I told you so,” I am grateful that they took me to music lessons when I was a kid. And later, as a young adult, I was always welcome at the family home on the rare occasions when I wasn’t on the road with some band or another. Oh, I’m sure they were thinking, “Please get a haircut!” but that was probably the least of their worries.

• Strive for your personal best, first and foremost. Athletic events, especially the Olympics, are extremely competitive. So is being a professional musician or composer on the world stage. You’ll likely be thunderstruck by this realization the first time you venture outside of your own school or community and figure out how many other people are smarter, stronger, faster or hotter than you.

You could use this bolt of realization one of two ways. You could just give up or you could tell yourself that right now, your goal is to strive for your personal best. Before you can deal with the competition, take the time to work on your own skills and presentation. The rest will follow.

• Take yourself seriously, but not too seriously. Learn to laugh at your mistakes as much as learning from them. For some reason, I recently recalled an embarrassing incident where the band Lois Lane was opening for Pablo Cruise at a rodeo stadium in Wyoming. My equipment was being powered by generators and my keyboards kept going out of tune every time a song started. Our guitarist, John Verner, kept coming over to help me tune up between songs and as soon as the lights went up again, my keyboards would go haywire again. Despite an audience of over 10,000 giving us thunderous applause after every song, I felt like hiding in a corner. After the show, my band mates made me feel better by telling me that the show sounded like a surreal punk band with high tech keyboards. Lesson learned? Generators and keyboards don’t mix. Make sure you fix the problem. Then have a laugh.

On another note, my daughter, Desiree, performed at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics with the “2008 Beijing Olympic Orchestra,” which was a 2008-member ensemble made up of university and high school students from around the world. Watching her on TV during this stunning international event really renewed my passion to excel, as well as my belief in the importance of music education.

Strive to be the best in the world and never give up on your dreams. I can’t wait for the spectacle of the opening ceremonies for the London 2012 Summer Olympics!

July 20, 2012


This week’s passing of iconic rock keyboardist Jon Lord refreshed my memories of touring with Hammond organs in the 1970s and ’80s. Jon was certainly a trailblazer for rock keyboard players and his name is synonymous with the Hammond brand.

My family had a Hammond chord organ when I was young. It was an “easy play” organ with buttons to play chords. I was never very fond of it because it sounded kind of cheesy. I was much more into playing drums. But it did give me a chance to noodle around every once in a while. It wasn’t until college that I started playing keyboards. My first keyboard was a synthesizer that I designed and co-built. I then added a Fender Rhodes piano.

When I began touring with the Hollywood-band Madame Beast, I rented a Hammond B3. The change from piano to organ was not an easy one. But after a few months, I grew to love playing it. A few years later, I purchased a Hammond C3. The basic difference between the two was that the B3 had four legs and the C3 was the church model that had a cabinet that went down to the floor. The C3 was a monster, weighing in at over 350 pounds and was built like a tank. I never had to worry about it functioning properly, despite the constant touring. I did replace broken keys a few times because I would occasionally jump on the keyboard during a show. But overall, the most reliable piece of equipment you could ever ask for.

That Hammond C3 also stayed with me when I toured with a Denver-based band called Reign, as well as with the band Lois Lane, which was mostly based in Chicago. Eventually, the band leader made a decision (an ill-fated one, in my opinion) to leave the lucrative Midwest circuit for Salt Lake City. I bowed out of Lois Lane a few months later, heading back to Chicago with the Hammond and the rest of my gear in a U-Haul trailer. Towing it through the Wasatch Mountains in the dead of winter was no picnic.

But the story has a happy ending. As I made a choice to create a high-tech solo act, I purchased a lot of new gear and sought a good home for the Hammond C3 that had entertained rock audiences in so many cities and towns throughout the U.S. and Canada. Fittingly, I sold it to a Baptist Church on the South Side of Chicago. It makes me think of that terrific scene in “The Blues Brothers,” where Jake and Elwood “see the light” and go wild at a Sunday morning service. I’m sure that my Hammond is still working to this day and bringing a lot of joy to both the keyboardist and the congregation.

Cub Scout Duane Decker, with his first keyboard. Pretty amusing, in retrospect!

July 13, 2012


If you’ve ever said, “I wouldn’t be caught dead composing [insert your least favorite musical style here]”, then you’re probably not going to make a living as a full-time composer. That’s not to say that you can’t excel in your chosen style and become wealthy and famous. It simply means that the majority of composers are usually challenged with creating music in genres that are either new to them or that they actually dislike for one reason or another.

In the case of being faced with something that I’ve never done before, I had never created an eight-minute overture in sonata allegro form for a live symphony orchestra. Yet my good friend Gabriel Sakakeeny asked me to do just that for the American Philharmonic – Sonoma County. It was a big challenge to learn how to arrange music that I had written for video games and put it into a format that is centuries old.

Then there is the inevitable project that uses a musical genre that you don’t care for. When I was playing live in the ’70s and ’80s, there were tons of club and concert venues across the U.S. and Canada that hired live bands to perform every night. Then came the disco era and these venues could draw big crowds by simply hiring a DJ to spin dance records. Naturally, it became harder for a live music act to play enough shows to make a living. I always thought the musicianship on some of these records was outstanding, but they were taking work away from me. So I viewed disco music with a fair amount of contempt.

But fast forward to today. In my job at IGT, I get to create and arrange tracks in a very wide variety of styles. I am currently working on two games that have licensed disco tracks. When I was told about it, I smiled and said, “Yes, I can do that” when the producers asked. The game designer knew how much I disliked disco and now teases me by calling me “Disco Duane” (with a smile on his face, of course).

But after copying, arranging, performing and producing every last note of these songs, I have a newfound appreciation for the genre. Both “Fire” by Ohio Players and “Disco Inferno” by The Trammps are extremely well- written, performed and produced records that were chart-toppers in their day. I learned a lot about funk rhythm and style that I will certainly use in other projects in the future. The down side, however, is that now I can’t stop humming “disco inferno, burn that motha down …”

So if you’re planning on being a composer for a living, continue to learn about and explore other styles of music. Even if you don’t care for the style, it will give you a larger composing palette that will come in handy and increase your value in the future. Next big challenge for me – opera!

If you’d like to see how many different musical styles I’ve taken on, the credits page on my Web site will give you a pretty good idea.

Here’s a picture from my high-tech solo act.

July 7, 2012


I recently toured the Musician Rehearsal Center (MRC) in Sparks, Nevada, a unique facility that rents secure, temperature-controlled and sound-dampened rehearsal spaces to musicians. It’s located in an industrial area and features easy load-in and load-out for gear, is accessible to electronic key holders 24/7 and also features a large stage with professional lighting, audio and video equipment. The owner/founder Bill Woody is a former musician who wisely saw a need for this. As he gave me a tour, we joked about all the garages and basements where we rehearsed in our youth, hoping that the neighbors or our parents wouldn’t get too sick of hearing us play. Oh, if those walls could talk!

While providing a solution for musicians who really do want to rehearse — and really don’t want to irritate the neighbors — the MRC is also a place where musicians can network, post info about their upcoming gigs, gather feedback from others in the community and so on. And the MRC recently hosted a Musician Faire and Fanfest for the benefit of the Northern Nevada Food Bank and The Washoe County School District Music Department.

In a similar vein, I heard from a friend in Chicago about a Haymakers Reunion that took place a few months ago. Haymakers was a popular nightclub that closed in the early ’80s, so the actual reunion was held at another venue called Durty Nellie’s. But many bands and fans who were fixtures at Haymakers got back together for an energetic afternoon and evening of live music. This event also raised money for charitable organizations.

The bottom line is that busting out of the garage is important to musicians and composers on so many levels. At some point, you need to get out there and share your music, sometimes even when you’re not sure that you’re ready to do so. Networking with other musicians can be valuable, as is finding out (from audience reactions) whether you’re on the right course or maybe need to rethink the type of music you’re attempting to present or promote. Last but not least, it doesn’t hurt to donate your time and talent to worthy causes in your community. It’s not just a way to gain exposure, but can really make someone else’s day and/or help them to keep their good work going.

July 7, 2012


Women want shoes. Musicians and composers want gear. The tendency is to want more, more, more, but finding the money and the physical space to store or transport everything can become problematic.

Throughout my career, I have probably spent enough money on equipment that I could have purchased a small house. The unfortunate part about keyboards and recording gear is that, unlike a lot of other instruments, they become obsolete pretty quickly. While the obsession to get the latest and greatest is always present, it’s not always necessary.

How do you know what you really need to get the professional results that you want? Do your homework. In my experience, impulse buying of musical equipment has rarely worked out well. While I usually plan my purchases well in advance and down to the length of cables required, I have also been guilty of some awkward purchases.

At the moment, I’m in the process of trying to unload an 88-note MIDI keyboard controller with fully weighted keys and lots of buttons, knobs and sliders. At the time I purchased it, I was looking for a semi-weighted keyboard. But the alternative was a basic 88-note keyboard with no other controllers. I went for the big, cool-looking one, thinking that I would get used to the weighted action and the other controls would give me more options. I ended up never using the other controls and never got used to the weighted keys.

So how do you know what to buy? Any purchase can be a leap of faith. But you can certainly swing the odds of buying something useful and inspiring in your favor.

Ask respected musicians and composers in your community (or those who have a presence online) about the pros and cons of various instruments or studio tools. Although there are User Reviews of equipment on the Internet, I tend to take those reviews with a grain of salt. You can sometimes pick up tips that relate to your needs, but not everyone has the same needs as yours.

Find reliable retailers, as well. I’ve had a very positive, long-term relationship with the folks at Sweetwater in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The staff there is very knowledgeable. And because I’ve purchased gear for my full-time jobs at various companies and for my own personal studio, they’ve given me fair prices and attentive service. In fact, before I bought the aforementioned MIDI keyboard, I bought another controller only to find out that a key controller function that was important to me didn’t work. They sent me another one and the same thing happened. Sweetwater then tested the function and found that all of the brand new units were like that. They stopped selling that keyboard and made sure that I was able to buy my second choice — at great expense to them. Integrity has always been important to me when making big purchases and Sweetwater has always come through.

Bottom line, there is no easy way to make your purchasing decisions. Define your needs and your budget. Do a lot of research, both on-line and in-person. Buy your equipment from a retailer that you trust and will support you if things go wrong. And remember, you never know when that latest piece of gear will inspire you to write the next big hit.

This was my first solo act, Mr. Christopher, in which I played flute, drums, piano and a synthesizer that I designed and co-built. It was a pretty avant-garde show at the time.

July 1, 2012


“Money for nothin’ and chicks for free” was a teaser for aspiring musicians in Dire Straits’ 1985 hit “Money for Nothing,” sometimes also known as the “I Want My MTV” song. The song was intended to be humorous, playing up the perks of being in a rock and roll band. Yet there are people who envision that lifestyle and believe that it’s a cinch to obtain it.

Don’t get into playing music if you think that is the reality — or if those are the only rewards you’re seeking. To be successful for the long haul, you should want to play or write music for the right reasons. And it’s important to educate yourself about both the craft of music and the business of making a living at that craft.

At the beginners’ level, don’t skip your K-12 band or orchestra programs. You won’t know how much playing those Sousa marches or “Claire de Lune” will help you to write or interpret your own compositions years down the road. Also seize opportunities to play or sing with ensembles outside of your school. There now are many “School of Rock”-type organizations, either independently owned and operated or aligned with park districts or museums.

The Old Fire House Teen Center in Redmond, WA was offering a place for young musicians to perform, interact and learn from professionals, many years before that trend took off. Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle and The Recording Academy, with locations in many major cities, also offer music camps and competitions for kids and teens. And don’t overlook the National PTA’s Reflections festival, which encourages students to submit recordings of music they’ve composed or performed. Participation in such programs can greatly expand your horizons and give you new perspectives on how to present your music to wider audiences.

At the college level, my friend Mitch Gallagher is spearheading an applied music curriculum at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Berklee College of Music in Boston and Full Sail University in Florida are also among the very best places to study the art and business of music. Depending on your budget or personal circumstances, you may not be able to take advantage of what these particular schools can offer. But do take advantage of what you can do, within your own circle of friends or your own hometown, to practice and perfect your music.

Remember, “Money for nothin’ and chicks for free” doesn’t necessarily exist in the real world.

Onstage with Lois Lane in Chicago.