Dan Fogelberg: “They Pulled Me Up to Their Level”

Dan FogelbergI’m a big fan of the late Dan Fogelberg.  When I was a much younger man, Dan had a string of hits, among them “Same Auld Lang Syne” and “Leader of the Band”—my personal favorite.  I loved his well-crafted lyrics, his multi-instrumental versatility and his quest for excellence when he hit the studio and the stage.

When Dan was an art student at the University of Illinois, he played coffee houses and bars at night.  While doing so, he was discovered by a local booking agent, Irving Azoff.  Azoff managed to get Dan a record deal and eventually sent him to Nashville to prepare to record his debut album Home Free.

During this time in Nashville, Dan was able to get a lot of work playing sessions as a studio musician.  Years later he reflected on his time as a young studio musician playing with older, established session guys, “I was only 21 years old and I was part of the band, these maniacs who were amazingly good players. These guys were much better than me, and they pulled me up to their level.”

Numerous times over the past seven years, I have played guitar in the pit band of local musical theatre productions for some great shows, among them “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees”.  Last year, I was part of the production of the hilarious and macabre show, “Little Shop of Horrors.”

These kinds of gigs force me to grow as a musician.  Broadway musicals are often fast-paced, with many numbers in cut (2/4) time.  The music is always challenging and sophisticated so it gives one’s sight-reading quite a workout.  I remember playing through one Gershwin overture in particular, four minutes long, which contained over one hundred different chords (from the musical Crazy For You).  It’s not easy work and sometimes quite stressful.  But I grow.  My colleagues and the music itself pull me up to another level.

What kinds of environments do you regularly put yourself in that challenge you and help you grow?  Do you work with colleagues, both at your regular job and at your hobbies, who pull you up to a higher level?  And do you help to push others on to success, that they might discover veins of talent and creativity they didn’t know they have?

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“They Pulled Me Up To Their Level”

I’m a big fan of the late Dan Fogelberg.  When I was younger, Dan had a string of hits, among them “Longer” and “Leader of the Band”—my personal favorite.  I loved his well-crafted lyrics, his multi-instrumental versatility and his quest for excellence when he hit the studio and the stage.

When Dan was an art student at the University of Illinois, he played coffee houses and bars at night.  While doing so, he was discovered by a local booking agent, Irving Azoff.  Azoff managed to get Dan a record deal and eventually sent him to Nashville to prepare to record his debut album Home Free.

During this time in Nashville, Dan was able to get a lot of work playing sessions as a studio musician.  Years later he reflected on his time as a young studio musician playing with older, established session guys, “I was only 21 years old and I was part of the band, these maniacs who were amazingly good players. These guys were much better than me, and they pulled me up to their level.”

Numerous times over the past six years, I have played guitar in the pit band of local musical theatre productions for some great shows, among them “Crazy For You” and “Damn Yankees”.  Most recently, I was part of the production of the hilarious and macabre show, “Little Shop of Horrors.”

These kinds of gigs force me to grow as a musician.  Broadway musicals are often fast-paced, with many numbers in cut (2/4) time.  The music is always challenging and sophisticated so it gives one’s sight-reading quite a workout.  I remember one Gershwin overture in particular, four minutes long, which contained over one hundred different chords.  It’s not easy work and sometimes quite stressful.  But I grow.  My colleagues and the music itself pull me up to another level.

What kinds of environments do you regularly put yourself in that challenge you and help you grow?  That pull you up to a higher level?

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Vying For A Place With Vai

In a month I will be playing guitars in the pit band for a local production of the musical “Little Shop of Horrors.”  It is a comedy with music and lyrics written by the Grammy Award winning team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.  Musically it is a combination of Sha-Na-Na meets Billy Joel meets Funk-A-Delic meets The Knack.  It is a hilarious story.

Playing in these shows is always a challenge.  I read music and that has helped me get these roles, which are a privilege.  I get to work with outstanding musicians.

Today I spent hours going through the score—a piano reduction—and the guitar lead sheets, learning parts and rhythms.  It puts one through the paces to be sure.

This music is challenging and multi-faceted.   Most Broadway music is.  It calls for focus and discipline, something I have to work at every day.  As I read through the musical today, I thought a lot about guitarist Steve Vai and his unbelievable work ethic regarding his art.

Steve used to divide his days up into twelve hours for guitar practice.  He may still be doing so.  Three hours for scales and modes, three hours for other things, and so forth.  If you’ve ever seen or heard Steve play, he is an extreme guitarist.  He does things most guitarists wouldn’t dare attempt.  His chops are precise, fluid and varied.  His execution of musical passages flawless.  His tones exotic, to say the least.

Vai’s genius, like Mozart and Tiger Woods, is rooted in deliberate practice.  Focus.  Distractions eliminated strategically.

He’s a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, so he knows music.  When he was breaking into the business over thirty years ago, he would transcribe the music and guitar solos of Frank Zappa—a musical genius in his own right.  And these transcriptions, of all parts in the songs, were written not as tablature (tabs) but as music proper.  That is an incredible feat in itself.  He eventually gave them to Zappa and worked with him.  The video below shows Steve playing and sharing about focus and practice.

Once again we are reminded that the key to mastery of any thing to which we aspire is time, focus and discipline.  Christopher Parkening, classical guitar virtuoso, once said, “You will always pay the full price for excellence.  It is never discounted.”

What things are you good and gifted at?  What kinds of changes can you make in their practice to take your skills to the level of virtuosity?  Are you up to the challenge?

I bet you are.

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Do What You Love (At All Costs)

When I first moved away from home, out on my own, I was 18 years old.  I had graduated from high school about a month and a half earlier.  I moved 100 miles away from my family to Lansing, Michigan—home of Oldsmobile and the state’s capitol.  Got a job and place of my own.  Ready to fly.

I worked in a donut bakery for the year and a half I lived in Lansing.  Our store stocked many of the Oldsmobile factories in and around Lansing.  Many of our walk-in customers were Olds employees.  It was a GM town, not unlike Flint or Detroit.

In those days, a job with General Motors set you up for life.  Great wage and benefits.  Nice pension upon retirement.  It was and is a way of life for many people.

I remember vividly one of my co-workers telling me stories of factory workers, assembly line men and women, who were so tired and unfulfilled with life on a factory assembly line that they walked away and took $5.00 an hour jobs.  That amazed me back then and made a deep impression.

I did not really understand it then.  But I do now, almost 30 years later.  Someone has said, in effect, “Do the thing you have passion for.  You’ll be far more effective than doing something you have no love for.”

I’m a musician.  I’m entering my 36th year as a guitar player and have added other instruments along the way.  I have had a number of mini-careers (baker, staff pastor, carpenter, IT professional) since 1982  but music is my heart, soul and vocation.

This morning I spent a few hours sharing thoughts with a group of leaders on taking control and responsibility for our lives.  This afternoon, it was music.  First, I spent some time learning about music production in the studio.  Then I took a few minutes with a buddy, setting up a jam time in the future with him, his wife, Kath and I.  He plays bass and is eager to throw down and grow.

Next, I went off to Watertown to pick up an overdrive pedal that I’ve needed for my electric guitar work.  I’m currently preparing to play in the pit band for a local production of the Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors.  A terribly funny show.  It will be a blast.

In a local music shop, I met a musician who plays progressive rock in a band.  When I asked where they play, he said, “Are you familiar with Depauville?”  I laughed.  I told him, “I live right across the yard from the hotel where you guys practice and play.”  Now I need to check them out.  I’ve been hearing these guys play and grow for about 6 years now, courtesy of my unscreened front porch.  (Queen August is the band, for you locals.)

This is a huge part of my future and my DNA.  I will always play but I’m determined now, more than ever, to do all I can to give myself fully to this pathway.  It’s what I’ve been made to do.

Do what you love–at all costs.  You won’t be disappointed nearly as much as doing something that leaves your acuity and your heart unfulfilled.

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