Archive for August, 2012

August 30, 2012

LOUNGE ACT BLUES

When asked about the low points of my music career, I can’t forget the stint I did as keyboard player/singer with a boring lounge act called Jim, Bonnie and Duane. We had a steady gig at a restaurant/lounge called The Hungry Hunter in a Southern California beach town. The best thing I remember about the gig was that we got free food — and it was good food, too. The pay was also decent. But playing middle-of-the-road cover tunes by acts like The Captain and Tennille and Fleetwood Mac was painful, considering my preference for artists such as The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

It was also a very strange thing for me to be on a tiny stage playing background music for the dinner crowd, using a full-blown modular Moog and RMI Keyboard Computer. My equipment alone took up most of the stage and Bonnie would sing in front of this 6-inch-high stage. I could have (and probably should have) played this gig with one small electric piano.

At some point, Bonnie left the group due to medical problems. And so the act became the even-less-riveting duo of Jim and Duane. We shifted over to a regular gig in National City, California … and the boredom continued, but it was a source of income. When Bonnie recovered from her illness, she rejoined the act. One night, she set a beer on top of my amp and it spilled, ruining the amp. That was it. I couldn’t take it anymore. “See ya later, Jim and Bonnie.”

Fortunately, I was then invited to join a successful Denver-based band named Reign. The musicians were very talented but a bit lazy. They didn’t practice much — and they focused on cover material. Their repertoire was much more challenging than the song list from the Jim, Bonnie and Duane days. Singing/playing hits by Journey, Kansas and Earth, Wind and Fire was tolerable, but whenever I’d suggest adding some original songs, I was shot down. As Reign’s line-up began to disintegrate, I was forced to look for another touring band and really hoping for a chance to “upgrade” to one that was more ambitious.

Timing was on my side. A band named Canary, which played the same Western U.S. circuit as Reign, had recently lost its drummer, Bill Gent, to a new band called Lois Lane. In turn, Lois Lane was looking for a keyboard player/backup singer. Bill, who had seen me with Reign, recommended me for the gig. I spent several years with Lois Lane, playing original material and developing new skills and increased confidence, which later paid off in a number of other great music jobs.

The take-away lesson is that anyone striving to be a musician or composer, or maybe anyone in any line of creative work, must be patient, flexible and confident that sometimes the least glamorous jobs will sustain you while you follow your true calling.

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August 25, 2012

ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?

Are you psyched for football season? I know I am, but not just because of the action on the field. In the ’90s, as an in-house composer for Premier Technology, I composed music for the Gottlieb pinball game called “Touchdown Football.” Later on, when I began composing for production music libraries, one of my first tracks to be placed in a TV or film project was in an episode of HBO’s “Inside the NFL.”

Although I haven’t been heavily involved in creating music associated with football, every season and every form of entertainment — including watching football — reminds me of how much music enriches the total experience.

Classic movies about football have had original soundtracks that were profoundly moving and/or uplifting. Think of “Brian’s Song,” “Rudy,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Blind Side” and so many others. The music truly helped to convey the emotions within these stories.

TV coverage of professional and college football is always enlivened by pop music that pumps up the excitement level. Think of Queen’s “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions,” Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Europe’s “The Final Countdown” and Faith Hill belting out the “Sunday Night Football” song.

In addition, there’s great live music by pro football drumlines and college and high school marching bands. Some of the most fun I’ve had in recent years was attending University of Washington football games when my daughter was a member of the Husky Marching Band. Sure, the game itself was the main attraction for most of the fans, but the phenomenal band and cheer squad contributed volumes to the energy in the stadium.

Bottom line, music makes everything better, including football! When you’re cheering for your favorite pro or college or high school teams, also give a hand to the musicians who make “game day” a real celebration.

August 20, 2012

BACK TO SCHOOL TIPS FOR MUSIC STUDENTS, PARENTS, TEACHERS

I’m not a music teacher, but my goal, when I started this blog, was to inspire and help young people who love music. Having worked as a professional musician and composer for most of my life, and having been involved in my kids’ music programs, I’d like to offer a few tips for the new school year.

FOR MUSIC STUDENTS:

• Choose an instrument that appeals to you, rather than the one that your friends think is cool. Experiment with different instruments, until you find one that best fits your personality and ability. Most schools and music stores offer trial rental programs and/or programs that apply rental payments to the purchase of an instrument.

• Yes, you do need to practice. Don’t fall into the “all or nothing” routine. Setting aside 20 minutes a day, or even a few times a week, is better than not practicing at all.

• Look for role models and mentors — not just your favorite recording artists, but people in your community. Park districts and teen centers often sponsor free or inexpensive concerts or workshops where you can interact with more experienced musicians. Some of the most successful musicians and composers of all time — The Beatles, for example — were once just curious kids who sought opportunities to meet like-minded, talented people. And look where it got them!

FOR PARENTS:

• Don’t force a particular instrument on your child because it’s the instrument you played or wanted to play. Likewise, don’t choose your child’s instrument based on gender. Once upon a time, girls played flutes and clarinets and the brass and percussion instruments were reserved for boys. Thankfully, times have changed. At most schools, you now see kids of either gender playing any instrument they like. Keep in mind that if your child is not happy with his or her instrument, practice will not be a priority and it’s even less likely that he or she will want to participate in school music at all.

• Show up for your child’s performances. Just as student athletes would be discouraged if no one showed up to cheer for them at the big game, music students want and need your applause and your approval. Make every effort to attend your child’s recitals, concerts and athletic events where your child is a member of the marching band or pep band. Kids and teens don’t always admit it, but your presence (or lack thereof) matters to them. When they don’t see your face in the auditorium or the stadium, it sends a negative message: “My parents think this is a waste of time, so why am I bothering to play music?”

• In this tough economy, many schools are struggling to keep both sports and music programs alive. Parent-run boosters’ clubs often must come to the rescue. If your child’s school doesn’t have a music boosters’ organization, “band together” (pardon the pun) with other parents to start one. Every dollar helps, whether it’s raised through a bake sale, a silent auction, creating small music ensembles to perform at private parties and so on. Do check with teachers and school administrators to make sure that proper policies and guidelines are followed.

FOR TEACHERS:

• I have a lot of respect and admiration for hard-working men and women who have the patience and dedication to share their love of music with kids and teens. Dealing with a wide variety of kids and their parents and their various temperaments has to be enormously challenging. Having said that, when I was growing up and when my kids were in school music programs, there were always a few music students who stood out for the wrong reasons. Either they were the class clown, they were cocky and rude or maybe they were excessively timid or falling asleep in class. Before judging that child as a troublemaker or slacker, please stop to consider circumstances that might not be visible. The child may be facing a crisis at home or he/she may have an undiagnosed illness or learning disability. Helping that child to “fit in” in a music program may be a lifeline, a reason for him or her to care about coming to school.

FOR EVERYONE:

Best wishes for an exciting and successful year of school music.

August 11, 2012

UNSUNG HEROES OF “MECHWARRIOR 4: VENGEANCE”

To my amazement and delight, people from all over the world continue to contact me with questions and comments about my past projects, such as my original video game soundtrack for “MechWarrior 4: Vengeance.”

Developed by FASA Studio and published by Microsoft in 2000, this soundtrack is still appreciated by many avid gamers and others who’ve discovered tracks from “MechWarrior 4” on YouTube.

Although I composed the music and played keyboards and percussion for “MechWarrior 4,” the soundtrack would not have been the same without the following outstanding musicians:

• Concert Master: Simon James
• 1st Violin: Kyung Sun Chee, Tom Dziekonski, Simon James
• 2nd Violin: Linda Anderson, Jean W. Yablonsky
• 2nd Violin: Susan Guikis, Laurel Wells, Joe Gottesman
• Cello: Rajan Krishnaswami, Susan Williams, Virginia Dziekonski
• Bass Violin: Stephen Schermer
• Trombone: Peter Ellefson
• Bass Trombone: Stephen A. Fissel
• Trumpet: John Aigi Hurn, Charles Butler
• French Horn: Joseph Berger, Peter Moore
• Flute: Susan Telford
• English Horn: Dan L. Williams
• Guitar: Clifford Allen Garrett

The guitarist who performed on this soundtrack was a co-worker at Microsoft. The other talented musicians for “MechWarrior 4” were members of the Seattle-based Northwest Sinfonia. Members of this esteemed group have performed on a number of film soundtracks, major game titles and at the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s dazzling annual production of “The Nutcracker.” To work with musicians of this caliber, and to have them perform the music that I composed for “MechWarrior4: Vengeance” was a thrill and an honor.

Onstage or in the studio, the company you keep can make or break a project. Always strive to associate yourself with others who can elevate your efforts with their contributions.

August 2, 2012

BIG BUDGET PROJECT (WHAT PEOPLE REALLY REMEMBER)

You would think it would be inevitable. You work really hard all your life to get to a point when you can finally grab the brass ring. You land a project with a huge budget to create a 95-minute score using one of the best orchestras in the TV, film and game world. Well, any seasoned composer can tell you, that’s not always what people remember about you.

I left Microsoft in 2003 and formed my own music production company, DDMusic LLC. It was shortly after the release of “Rise Of Nations” and pretty unexpected considering my contribution to Microsoft Game Studios (MGS). But I had faith that a full-fledged sequel wouldn’t be far behind, so I pressed on. While business isn’t my strong suit, I managed to score the expansion pack “Rise Of Nations: Thrones And Patriots” (developed by Big Huge Games and published by MGS), get involved in a few small projects, and expanded my TV and film production music catalog worldwide.

Then along comes the project of a lifetime. “Rise Of Nations” had made a big impression as a first-time-out intellectual property. It was holding its own against some very successful and well-established real-time strategy games of the day. Partially because of the release of my soundtrack on Nile Rodgers’ Sumthing Else Records, I was on the short list to score the sequel.

Bottom line, I was contracted to score “Rise Of Nations: Rise Of Legends.” I could now afford a composer’s dream team to accomplish a truly world-class music score. Stan LePard – orchestrator, Guy Whitmore – audio director, Simon James – music contractor, Northwest Sinfonia – 34 piece orchestra, Reed Ruddy – lead recording engineer, Studio X (Seattle) – recording studio. The list goes on.

From inception to final delivery, I spent almost a year on the project. The 60-to-70 hour weeks were filled with pure adrenalin and a creative outpouring that yielded, what I felt, was my best work ever. I was proud to have accomplished something on the scale that would sit alongside any AAA game title or major film release of the day.

But right before the project was to be released, MGS decided to pour its marketing dollars into other projects. The game probably didn’t even recoup the cost of development and never reached the level that we were all hoping for.

In the big picture, what a lot of people remember about my video game soundtracks, is the little game that started this whole scenario – “Rise Of Nations.” A gathering of very creative, motivated people who had the drive and common goal of creating a piece of pop culture. I am more remembered for the original, low budget, “Rise Of Nations” soundtrack, where I recorded a few players at a time, than the big budget, epic soundtrack from “Rise Of Legends.” But I am still very proud of this soundtrack.

Always remember that it is not the size of the budget or the scope of the project. It is the heart you pour into it.

You can not succeed, unless you accept the fact that you will fail every once in a while. Think positive, be confident and always move forward.

Here is the opening movie from “Rise Of Legends.”