Sunday, 20 January 2013

Guest Blogger: Michelle Jones!

What does it take to be a CAL musician? I can only offer my opinion based on my experiences and learning from others (including asking other band mates.)

Like most professional violinists, I was trained to be a symphonic musician in the classical styles.  This means that I was expected to take complex music, analyze it from start to finish (including chord changes and progressions and how the melodies and harmonies fit together), practice playing it on my own, and then finally rehearse it with the full ensemble before a performance.  As a solo musician, I still had to do all these things to ensure that the essence of the piece is captured in a solo performance, not just the written solo parts.  Listening to recordings of the same piece by a variety of artists was crucial in developing my own style for the way of performing that piece. 

But this is where the freedom ends.  You still have to learn all the notes exactly as printed on the page.  When in a symphony orchestra, you have to learn the conductor’s style for the way HE wants us to perform that piece as a cohesive group.  Much of the music we are taught and perform is from DWEMs (dead, white, European males), and we cannot simply ask them, “Is this the style you intended?”  Therefore, it is up to the conductor to interpret that for us, and it is our job to create it as best as possible.  If a player’s style conflicts with the conductor’s style, then that player is usually not rehired for future work.  Sometimes, the conductor fires them on the spot (I’ve seen this happen several times.)

With CAL, this same discipline applies.  Only stricter.  There are no scores and parts written for us that we can simply purchase or rent (like symphonic music.)  We have to create those charts OURSELVES.  Our styles or interpretations of the music are irrelevant.  We are completely dependent on recreating the original recordings of the albums.  We do not have the freedom to improvise based on some possible chord progressions.  We have to virtually dissect the album, note for note, cut for cut, by listening repeatedly, and determining which parts of that album for which each one of us is responsible.  It’s like musical dictation at the most advanced levels.  But how do you know what parts are yours?  Ahhhh, that’s where the discussion arises.  Are you covering the tambourine and the vocals in this song?  Am I singing the high or middle note?  Who is on the lead vocal for this one?  This is where the style of the players/singers must be matched to the song.  This is why there is a large pool of musicians in CAL; the performers must match the original as closely as possible. 

Some of the CAL musicians scrawl notes or just words with chord letters on a piece of plain paper; some use no charts at all as they have their parts fully memorized for that album.  Some don’t even know how to read musical notation, but that does not mean that they are any less caliber of a musician.  They still have trained themselves to listen for every nuance, every twang, every breath and know how to place them accordingly.  Some of us have written out the musical notation for our instruments, mainly to make it easier for ourselves on the gig so that we don’t leave anything out.  Craig has even paid for some charts to be transcribed so that he can hire local musicians to “fill in” and save some travel expenses by not using all traveling musicians.  This is good for business, but challenging for consistency.  In one city, the trumpet player may play well reading the chart, but doesn’t know when to help fill in with handclaps or sing with group vocals.  In another city, it takes two keyboardists to do the job of the one they have in another.  How do they know how to split their parts when they live in different countries?

These considerations and decisions are the responsibility of the leader and contractor.  You hire someone based on their abilities and recommendations; you continue to hire someone based on their performance and interaction with the band.  When there are no charts and very little directions, you have to rely on your band mates to communicate with you.  But, you still have to be prepared to play parts you might not have practiced.  You just don’t exactly know until you get to the rehearsal, if there is one.  Oftentimes, the bandleader will want to do different songs than originally planned for the second set.  This is where you need to know the entire catalogue from that band, and be prepared to play it with a moment’s notice.  Keyboardists have the most challenging time with this as they have to program or re-program on the fly during the show.  On many occasions, I have been asked to help on keys, percussion, vocals, and even the congas and glockenspiel.  I was hired as a violinist for that show, but I was prepared for these last-minute additions, as I knew the other parts needed to be covered.  On one show, we learned during sound check that the guest choir was not prepared for their parts.  They were expecting the leader to send them a chart to learn, they would learn it in school (traditionally this is how they prepare), and then come to sound check.  They were never sent a chart; only told to sing the choir parts on this certain song.  I saw the immediate need, and knew that the show would fail if I didn’t do something.  I was able to use my many years of vocal training in opera, church and gospel choirs to quickly transcribe a chart for their director, work with the group during my dinner break, and successfully re-create the sound needed for that show.  The audience was none the wiser, but the band knew.  I later sent a formal transcription to Craig for use in future shows so that it would not happen again.  It’s this type of teamwork that makes a successful show.  If you cannot learn other parts on a moment’s notice, or if you are flustered easily by the quick changes, then you don’t belong in CAL.

As Craig has stated many times, this music cannot just be read and played once.  It has to be in your DNA.  You have to grow up listening to it, over and over, wearing out the grooves on the record, stretching the tape from listening so many times, even wearing the paint off the “back” button for repeating it so often.  This is where the only classically trained musician usually fails to meet the expectations of CAL.  The CAL musician has to know the music inside and out, and LOVE IT.  If we don’t love it, it shows in our performances, and the fans can read that.  The fans are here for the love of the music, and it is our job and responsibility to give them exactly what they want while leaving them wanting more.

Michelle Jones, Vinylinist
CAL musician since 2005


  1. 2005!

    that's great michelle
    you're a valued part of the team

    looking forward to another 8 years

  2. Thank you for the nicely written Blog post and the notes that you play during the CAL shows. Vinylinist...... love it!!