Saturday, February 15, 2020

Backing Tracks in a Live Setting

Lately I've been hearing all kinds of complaints about this band is using backing tracks and this performer is lip-synching with so many people having very strong opinions about both. In most cases people are very critical of artists who are even suspected of doing so with most of these artists being called a fraud in one way or another. So I thought I would take some time to reflect on this discussion and offer my own thoughts on the issue.  

Click Tracks 

I have performed with backing tracks several times in multiple bands. I will admit that there was never an effort in any of these groups to hide that fact from the audience as one band had one keyboard player but still had multiple keyboard parts while another project was made up of a singer/guitarist and myself on drums, which led to this person tracking the bass parts himself since he was unable to find a reliable bassist and didn't let that obstacle keep us from the stage.

Being the drummer of the group I had to play to a click track and while that is not something I prefer to do I accepted long ago that this is a reality in today's music world. The only time I grew somewhat frustrated with it was when we had a great gig with an energetic audience because one tends to feed off the energy of the crowd. This led many of the songs to feel really slow but of course that didn't stop the performance from being spot on as the click track kept my adrenaline from taking over, thus, making sure that I didn't choke the song by playing it too fast.

This of course allows us to take a detour in the discussion as there are also those who have opinions on the use of a click tracks. I have used a click track for years when I work out on my practice pad and when I work out certain rhythmic patterns on my electronic drums. As a drummer I always need to work on my consistency so I have no problem using a click track when I practice. However, this is not a performance setting so one is rarely criticized for using it while they practice but that doesn't mean that using it in a live setting makes a performance less musical.

Take for example when the band Queensryche had their drummer play to a click track in order to stay in line with the video presentation that was playing behind them during their musical performance. In this case I think most musical purists tolerate such a thing if they in fact found the video portion of the performance to be of great importance. Of course the audience loved it so when it comes to doing good business we can already see that Queensryche did the right thing.

Of course there are those who refuse to use click tracks in the studio and speak of how the classic rock artists never used them (um, sometimes the truth is that the in fact did...anyway) so why should we? Well, consider this for a moment. Do we honestly think that they would not have used this and/or any other forms of technology if it was in fact available to them? I have done several sessions where it saved us time and money when we were able to take a part of the songs that was in perfect time and copied and pasted it on a part that was not in perfect time. In each case the project didn't have a maximum budget so yes, we had to get things done with what little time and money we had. What is wrong with that?

Back to the live setting: when a band is in their heyday and their tour has a bigger budget to work with they may hire extra musicians to join them onstage.  Years later they work with what they have but that doesn't necessarily mean that their audience wants to hear a stripped down version of their songs so if they have to fill the sound with a little bit of technological assistance then so be it. Maybe they need to use prerecorded background vocals because they can't afford to travel with additional singers. If it's the lead singer and perhaps Father Time has already had an impact on their voice then maybe they need a bit of help when it comes to hitting certain notes. I know that seems like a mark against the singer but I would suggest we consider being a little less critical in this case.

There are other options as well. Sometimes the backing tracks are being played by a keyboardist offstage and while this is not a prerecorded track it is certainly not a group of live background singers. Is that also taboo to those with a purist attitude? If not, is it simply because it is not a prerecorded loop? If so then I guess the big problem is the click track and not the prerecorded track. If that's the case then this whole debate is absolutely ridiculous. 

It's NOT just singers who age and sometimes can't perform the way they did in the past. As a drummer I have seen many drummers who later in their careers lack the power and feel they had in their younger days. We also see guitarists who also seem to have lost a bit of their skill over the years and while many people will in fact comment on such things we don't see them under the same scrutiny as lead singers. Further, if musicians are so critical of performers being able to pull off certain things in their later years then perhaps they should think more about the future while are younger and smoking up a storm or knocking back drinks like there is no tomorrow. Obviously there are more than enough examples of performers who have more than demonstrated the harm that comes with such behavior.

There are many reasons why a band's sound changes and it's not just from how a musician sounds as they age. Aside from aging it can also be from changing members as each musician has their own unique sound and approach to playing both their instrument as well as a song. Either way, if you don't like the sound of the band you are free not to listen to them and in this case, not to attend their concerts.

Educational Setting 

Now I would like to take the discussion in a different direction and remind us that live settings are more than just concerts. Take for example a person who leads a Master Class. Personally, I don't care for such appearances when the person plays along to a backing track. I want to see them play something on their instrumental that we normally don't see them do with one of their bands. I once attended a Dave Weckl drum clinic where he played to several backing tracks from his solo CD so he could break down what he played for the audience. I also saw Peter Criss do something similar but he actually brought in his band at the time and they played live for us before he discussed his drumming concepts. Any thoughts on which presentation was more musical? Well, that depends on your view of using backing tracks in a live setting but I can say that I actually enjoyed both presentations.

Years ago I was totally against the use of drum machines, electronic drums and the use of backing tracks. To be honest I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was not familiar with how to work with such devices both in composition and live settings. I don't think it had anything to do with being afraid of the change that was occurring in the music world but there was certainly a level of ignorance on my part. (

Meanwhile, I am currently looking at some possible solo drumming appearances and in order to vary things up a bit I am considering playing along to some backing tracks. If that's the case then yes, I have come a long way in my opinion of playing to prerecorded tracks. In this case, it would allow me to work without having to rely on other artists to put a group together with me while also giving me a chance to present my own musical vision. How is that a bad thing?

The Only Guarantee is Change

Things change and it's not just the instrumentation onstage. It's also in the way music is sold, the way musicians network as well as how people learn from music teachers as we see more people making use of video when it comes to working with a teacher. I'm sure no one would deny how much better it could be if the student was present with their teacher but this is way things are done now. And, by doing things in this way music teachers can now expand their pool of students as they are no longer limited to the area in which they live. Of course sometimes the instruction is not that personal as a monthly payment leads to having access to an instructor's videos without the option of asking questions. While that also might not be the way a student wants to learn from a teacher it's still something that they wouldn't have without technology. This has also given students access to their favorite high profile artist as many of them are now offering instruction in this way.

We also buy instruments without trying them out first, which I think is totally crazy. I mean, how can I fall in love with the crack of snare drum without hitting it first? Music stores continue to stock things at a minimum so unless I go to an event like the NAMM Show and try the drum out first hand I have no idea what it sounds like. Of course, even if I buy it later from an online seller I am still not trying out the instrument before I buy it so I can argue that I'm still taking a chance with my purchase. Be it as it may, this is another change that isn't going anywhere and it isn't going to change any time soon.

So opinions vary on the issue and that's fine. All I sought to do with this blog is encourage people to expand the conversation a bit in terms of what a live setting actually is, which I think shows that we don't exactly hold all musicians to the same standard. I don't think a musical setting should dictate the purity of one's performance but that's just my opinion. I also want people to consider the fact that using a backing track is not in fact a crime. A purist attitude is fine but it doesn't make you a better musician or a better music fan. All that matters is that the music continues to move people and we know that a live performance is in fact a great way to experience the music.

Finally, the personal approach to music is in fact more than a live setting and while some people may not find Master Classes, networking and the purchase of instruments to be as important as a show I do think we underestimate their value in terms of the impact they have on others. Master Classes give us a very intimate look at an artist in a more instructional setting while also giving us a chance to ask questions ourselves rather than be at the mercy of a journalist who conducts and interview with the artist that we want to learn from. As far as musical instruction, many of us have had some amazing teachers and it was in fact that personal time we had with them that made all of the difference in the world. However, there was a time when a student may have to travel to see an instructor that did not live close by, which also meant that this personal time with them was more minimal than they would have preferred...until the internet came to be. Again, how is that a bad thing?

Musical genres change, the distribution of music has changed, the way we network for gigs has changed, the way we record music has changed and notice I didn't say whether any of these changes were good or bad. They are simply real and if this is the direction the business is going then so be it, we have to adapt to the situation or we're going to be sitting in our rehearsal rooms going nowhere. The same thing applies to how music is performed. Backing tracks are here and whether the purists like it or not they are now a part of the business of musical performance. So, if you want to keep working you may have to ask yourself how important your pride is when it comes to paying your bills. 

Carlos Solorzano

Saturday, February 1, 2020

My Thoughts on the Movie Whiplash

I know that most people would say that a blog about a movie that came out in 2014 is way past its time but this is not a movie review. I am writing this because for some reason I have heard the same question from several people the last few weeks and that is: What did you think of the movie Whiplash?

I have been most surprised by this question as this film's day seemed to have come and gone but I guess a lot of my peers are like me these days in that they get to see a film when they actually have time to sit down and watch it and for many of us it can takes years. I am just as guilty of this as my busy schedule prevents me from seeing most films while they are in theater.

The same thing happened when Whiplash came out. I did not see it in the theater but many people who knew that I was a drummer encouraged me to see the film. So one day I had a Best Buy gift card that someone gave me for my birthday so while I was there I bought a Blue Ray copy of the movie and watched it the moment I got home. As a film it is very interesting and there is a lot of great acting so kudos to performers. Still, I know that most people want to know more than what I thought of the film. They want to know what I think of the whole relationship between Andrew Neiman and Professor Terence Fletcher. Knowing that I studied music for a while in college they also want to know if I dealt with any teachers like Fletcher. So, here we go but let me warn you right now that I'm going to be very honest about a number of things.

First off, while I would never discourage someone to go for their dreams I think Neiman is foolish to pursue jazz studies. In most towns there is no or very little work for jazz musicians and this I know because I have my own instrumental trio and it does not work nearly as much as my country band. This is one of the reasons why I find it interesting that there is still so much emphasis on jazz studies in music schools when in the real music world, which is struggling on so many levels, is certainly not flourishing with jazz musicians. In fact, most of my college classmates who finished their musical studies are either teaching or moved on to another career. If they are performing I can assure you that they are not playing jazz on a full time basis. So I look at Neiman and think, Wow, kid. You're going to this prestigious music school (I don't recall if he was there on a scholarship) and racking up this huge loan that you're going to have to pay back with tip money as your performing jazz groups will get replaced by DJ's and Karaoke machines that bring in many more patrons than a combo of musicians, who I hate to say, are usually in a grouchy mood. I know it sounds cruel but in the world of business it is about the bottom line. Again, go for it if jazz is your thing but trust me when I say that most of us have had enough of the number of bitter jazz musicians who are out there complaining that there is no work.

Second, Fletcher and I would have never gotten as far as he did with Neiman during the first rehearsal. The whole not quite my tempo was nonsense. They never got far enough for anyone in the room to know if Neiman was rushing  or dragging so this scene was all about Fletcher busting his chops. With me, he would not have gotten further than not quite my tempo. I would have handed him my sticks and said, Why don't you show me the perfect performance? The moment he threw the chair at me I would have been on my feet and demanded he apologize before I throw the chair back at him. That means he would have never gotten as far as the verbal attacks or the slapping because if he would have tried to justify his actions and/or raised his voice at me for not putting up with his nonsense then he would have seen some of my Carson, CA roots to say the least.

As a side note, I never had a teacher like Fletcher but I did have a jazz band teacher at El Camino Community College (my friends know who I am talking about) who certainly had his moments. He never spoke with the same choice words or even with the same volume as Fletcher because he actually had some class. But, he knew how to say just enough to get under your skin. I put up with it because performing in an ensemble was a requirement to be in what was called the Applied Music program and with my work schedule I didn't have a whole lot of options to work with. If it wasn't for that I would have walked out of class probably within the second week of class and never returned.

The rest of the movie is basically more of Fletcher ridiculing both Neiman and many other students and from what I can see it's again, to get his rocks off. Take this scene where he is doing nothing more than berating the drummers. First off, he stops them as they get through one measure of an up tempo song. Then he continues to degrade them for not being able to play fast enough. I find this amusing because the piece they are trying to keep up with is supposed to be musical but all I hear, when Fletcher let's us get beyond a measure, is just a choppy piece that is meant to show how fast some jazz musicians can play. To the musical snobs out there, this type of song is somehow music but the your crazy blast beat driven devil metal song is not.. I disagree because it takes both talent and commitment to play at a very fast tempo regardless of the musical genre.

Again, I see it all of what Fletcher did as nothing more than a power trip more but Fletcher's rationale is that he was trying to push his students in order to produce the next Charlie Parker. That's when he tells the story of Philly Joe Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker when he was not cutting it only to have this defining moment push Charlie Parker to do better. When Neiman questions such a method and how it could in fact go too far Fletcher stated that such behavior would not break the next Charlie Parker. (start at: 1:06).

The problem for the ego maniacal Fletcher is that not every student is going to be the next Charlie Parker. In fact, he may never have any student that comes close to being the next Charlie Parker and yet those who would in fact break after being exposed to his vicious methods were also his responsibility so it is foolish for him to try to put them all in his experimental box . He also forgets that such artists and athletes for that matter may have a defining moment that moves them but it is almost certain that they have that special drive to begin with.

Take the story of Michael Jordan being cut from his varsity high school basketball team during his sophomore year. He wanted to make the team really bad so he was already driven to succeed. Yes, every athlete fails from time to time and all you can do is move on and keep trying to get better. I mean, do we really think that this high school moment was really Jordan's defining moment or was it those first seven years of his professional career when he could not win a championship until the Chicago Bulls organization surrounded him with great players including two Hall of Fame players that were also in the starting lineup during his last three championship years?

Jordan had the drive not to quit and this was most apparent when the famous Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were literally beating him and his team up during their epic playoff match ups. I am more than certain that Jordan wasn't thinking about his high school failure at the time he was trying to get past the Pistons.  His frustration of not being a winner at the highest level drove him to improve his game and to build up his body in order to handle all that the Pistons were giving to him. Once he along with his teammates figured out the Pistons they sent them packing once and for all with Jordan even admitting that if the Pistons had not done this to his team that they probably would not have had the run they had. Still, that is the Chicago Bulls team, not Michael Jordan the famous basketball player because even before the Bulls had won their first title people were already looking at Jordan as possibly being the greatest player of all time. Sounds to me like he already had the drive to be the best because he was known to be the hardest worker on his team both during the game as well as in practice before he finally became a champion.

Finally, people ask me about the drumming in the film, specifically the parts when Neiman is bleeding from all of his practicing. I am not going to get too into that because to me that's just Hollywood being dramatic. Do some drummers mess up their hands and at times bleed from all of that practice? Sure, especially when they are as tense and out of control as Neiman is during the film but I don't expect a movie to give me a proper display of what it's like to be a great drummer that is working towards being the best he can be.

In the same way that I don't think in today's safe space college environment that a teacher like Fletcher would have a job for even a week if he spoke to and acted in such a way towards his students.  In this case I would be on the side of the students because a school is not only a place to learn but a place for them to fall on their face and make mistakes in order to get ready for the real world. The teacher's job is to tell them what to expect, not to administer the abuse themselves. That's why you're a teacher and not a tyrant.

Fletcher had absolutely no understanding of that. That is why I say to people, if you like the typical 21st century smack talking fest that entertains the audience at the expense of a vulnerable character then go for it. Watch the movie. For me, well let's just say that it took two viewings for me to decide it needed to be traded in to my local used record store for something a whole lot better. It's just not worth my time on so many levels because it's...not quite my movie. 

Carlos Solorzano