– Or: How it takes weeks to prepare for 40ish minutes of stage time
This is a story of live show preparation. But first, let’s set the stage.
June 23rd, 2022. West Hollywood. The Troubador. The composers of the score for the hit television show Cobra Kai put on an incredible live show performing their music with a hot backing band. This band even included an actor from the show! The band even included appearance by actor and guitar-slinger Tanner Buchanan. He is known for playing the role of Robby Keene in the show itself and has chops formed by playing in a metal act called Acidopolis. Because why not?
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.
The Curtain Rises
The composers opted to have an opening act that was in the form of a film composer who inspired the majority of the music that they have created throughout their careers: Vince DiCola. His massive credits include the soundtracks of 1980s era “Transformers: The Movie” and “Rocky IV” to name a couple. The “Training Montage” music from Rocky IV is considered one of the most legendary training montage songs of all time.
When he was asked to be the opening act, he requested that the act include what he often refers to as “and Friends” or “The Jam Squad.” Funky and æffectionate names aside, this backing band has a drummer, two guitarsists, a marimba player, and some bald guy playing an obscure instrument called the Chapman Stick.
That bald guy is me.
So! I’m writing an entry to effectuate talking about all of the things that go into live show preparation. Why? I don’t know how often we think about all of the behind-the-scenes things that go into the shows we love to see on stage. Prior to getting to be IN them, I can’t say I thought much about it either. Arrive at the venue, watch the show, cheer, lose voice, go home, the end.
Here’s a perspective from BEHIND THE CURTAIN.
Informed of IMPENDING GIG
Most of this narration is going to be articulated from the perspective of this specific show. There are plenty of scenarios to choose from but this one is fresh in the brain so that’s where we’re starting.
It all began with a text message from Vince to the rest of the guys in the band. Show coming up! Date and time. Anyone available?
I have this thing; when Vince says “frog,” I jump.
Within reason, at least.
In this case, the answer was of course ABSOLUTELY.
From that moment until the next stage, the following things took place:
- Dumping of ALL of Vince’s potential live material onto my phone to begin listening to obsessively.
- Discontinuation of listening to anything that wasn’t Vince’s material when driving with the exception of audio note receipt. Podcasts, other music, anything. Relevant music only.
- Get the Chapman Stick off of its stand and start remembering how to play it*.
- Review parts for some of the most likely songs selected; this show would be an opening show, not headlining. Likely shorter set.
- Added three days a week of cardio to my already existing workout regimen. Needed to be stage ready and live performance is a very intense experience!
The preparation for preparation stage, if such a thing exists. Ready for anything. No matter what the set list was, the length of time, the number of songs: I was going to be ready.
* Side note: the last time I played the Stick for any effective length of notable time was in preparation for Vince’s last show in San Diego adjacent to Comic Con, 2019. Since then, it has mocked me from its stand. Leveling curses at me for not intoning it more often. Deservedly so. Instruments are meant to be played and music shared. In my not particularly humble opinion.
Follow-up to the details did not take long. Vince was given the amount of time that he would have access to for performing and the set list was developed to accommodate it. The set list was then sent to all of us and we got right to work.
Some follow-up to the follow-up did take place. A couple of tweaks to the set list. Modifications to the songs in question to trim out previously used solo sections and extended introductions. Effortless to slot and insert into place based on the practice that was already happening. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Discussions continued regarding travel and lodging logistics since two of us were coming from out of state. Extremely detailed conversations regarding signals, amplifier needs, microphones, monitoring stations. Finding out ultimately that the venue did not have a projector or screen for the accompanying videos we had prepared for the songs. All kinds of very minute details that, to an audience member, would make little sense but were all key components to making sure that said audience member was brought to an experience worthy of their time.
Eventually, all of the details were finalized. Flights were booked, lodgings were arranged, and it was back to weeks and days and hours of individual practice.
The Reconvening of the Conclave of Music Makers
In a perfect world, a few days of rehearsal would be the order of business. Since that was not available for everyone, what we settled on was a single, full-day of rehearsal together the day before the show. The show was on a Thursday evening, so the rehearsal took place on that Wednesday. Setup was to commence Tuesday afternoon without intent for setup but simply to make sure everyone was set and ready to go for the following day.
As it turns out, we were able to get an evening of rehearsing in anyway on that Tuesday because we were all there and absolutely chomping at the bit to play together again.
It was like the proverbial bicycle; as if three years had not passed and we last worked together a week ago.
We were able to get through almost the entire set once – maybe twice? – and knock off some of the cobwebs before calling it a night and getting some sleep.
The following day, it was rehearsal time. Vince let us know that we were going to be getting together early to start rehearsals to maximize the day. Call time: 10:00am.
When you’re used to getting up at 4 in the morning to exercise, having to be someplace at 10am is like vacation. Insert laughing smiley face emoticon here.
The Highs and Lows of All Day Rehearsal
Here’s the thing.
It sounds like quite a bit of fun to just …. music all day long. Hour after hour.
Truth be told: it is a lot of fun. Like nothing else. Especially when you’re not used to being a music maker for an entire day-long stretch.
The drawback to not regularly being a music maker for an entire day-long stretch is that after about, say, 8 straight hours, fatigue starts to set in. The fingers stop working the way you think they should. The brain starts to glitch out a bit. The map from the beginning to the end of the song has some forks in the road. The final run through of the set was distinctly not the best run through of the set. But we got the reps in and made the best of it and it was, ultimately, good.
A few bits of light-heartedness
All day rehearsal does come with some fun highlights though. At one point, while waiting for a technical glitch in monitoring to be ironed out, Vince started to play the song that we were in the moment rehearsing in the style of lounge jazz. So what do we do? We all joined in of course and had an incredible moment of style swerve from rock to smooth and easy listening. Once the glitch was ironed out and we called off the swerve, it was just one of those shared moments where we all got a good laugh out of it.
Legends are funny
Another fun moment was the fact that three of our songs were vocal songs. The final song – Hearts on Fire from the Rocky IV soundtrack – was to be sung by none other than Joe Esposito. If you’ve heard the song “You’re the Best” from The Karate Kid, you are familiar with his voice as that was him singing it. Turns out he’s a good friend of Vince and agreed to sing a song during our set.
During that, we had a brief break moment and I could hear him talking to some kids in the control room of the studio we were in through monitors. He started talking about the song “My Girl” to them as an example of something so I started noodling the recognizable line that opens the song. In the monitors we suddenly hear “Wait, can those guys hear me talking?” Someone in the background affirms that that is the case. He then had some funny commentary using colorful language about an intelligent donkey regarding whoever that was. We all burst out laughing at that one.
Earlier in the day during the rehearsals though? The highs were really high. We were firing on all thrusters and it sounded like we had been playing these songs together for years continuously instead of sporadically.
The Day of the Show
We left all of our gear set up in the studio in order to take one more run through of the set prior to striking everything down and relocating to The Troubador for setup and sound check. Meeting at noon, we picked up where we left off and ran the entire set one more time. Some cobwebs from a tiring day before and a few glitches here and there but otherwise, we were as prepared as we could be.
We struck everything down, packed up the vehicles, and headed to the venue to start the 3pm load in and sound check.
Load in and Sound Check
This is where things get interesting.
As the opening band, we set up and sound check last. This is standard operating procedure.
The headlining band backing up the Cobra Kai composers was a comparatively large band and their setup and sound check took up some time. Our set up and sound check was significantly shorter.
During the course of the sound check, we found out that our monitoring setup was not going to work because cables that were previously thought to be present at the venue were not actually there. There was a flurry of frenzied discussion and a few accommodations were able to be made to make sure that we were able to hear the cues we needed to hear for some of the more complicated material.
Sound check happened, everything sounded pretty good from what we could tell. Vince was scheduled to do a meet and greet so we had to cut that short.
Some of the folks at the Troubador were super nice and brought in pizza for the bands! So in a thing that is super rare for most venues, food was provided. Such a pleasant surprise!
At this point, if anyone was going to change clothes, this was the time to do it. So we got into whatever we were wearing for the show, hung around in the green room for a bit, and mentally mapped our way through the show one more time.
It’s always right before a show that the nerves start to rise a little bit. It’s a combination of excitement and nervousness. Excitement at having the opportunity to share music with people, nervousness of something going sideways.
The realization eventually hits that there’s nothing to be done about anything that we’re nervous, and so finally, after months of preparation, it’s time to take the stage for forty-ish minutes.
A very wise person once effused to me that it is not necessarily the moment that we focus on but rather the journey that got us to that moment.
In the grand scheme of things, this definitely applies.
The show itself passed by in the blink of an eye. We were there, there were cheers, we played our hearts out, and then it was done.
Kinda anti-climactic in a way, isn’t it?
Think of it this way. While the experience of being on the stage is a different one than that of being in an audience in front of a stage, we share something in common. We love the music, and we’re all there for the same amount of time sharing in that experience.
As an audience member, your journey begins when you leave your place of being – be it work or homestead – and get to a show venue, see a performance, and then go home. Sometimes in there is dinner, meeting band people, autographs, talking with other audience members. But as the audience member, you experience our months of preparation in a comparatively fleeting string of minutes.
This is fantastic though! This is how it is supposed to be. Our mission as performers is to put in the work and be ready for your musical experience. We know this, we acknowledge it, and we EMBRACE it.
Final Curtain Call
So! That, in a very large and wordy nutshell, is the experience. In the aftermath of said experience, I have a few thoughts.
First of all, my immense thanks to anyone there. We are nothing without you as appreciators of music. After the last couple years, more than ever this is something that we all need. The experience sharing. The symbiotic relationship. The feedback loop between performer and audience.
Secondly, I hope I have been able to convey just how different the experience is for the performer compared to the audience member. We share that same moment in time together when the lights go up and the music hits. Everything leading up to that is completely different!
Finally, for anyone who is responsible for hiring talent in any sector, you are not hiring someone’s moment for your thing. You’re hiring the sum of their experiences leading up to your need for a moment of your own. We are delighted to do it! We share something just like a performer and an audience do: we’re both professionals. Your need for a moment is built upon your own experiences. Our provision of that need is also built on experiences. It’s not something that ever occurred to me before until writing this, so my own mindset shift is going to be fun. Maybe yours will too.
That’s all, folks!
Until next week.
-= george =-