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Musicians, musicians

May 23, 2012
By Mark Miller , The Herald-Star

This column is going to meander a bit folks, so just try to stay with me.

I thought I'd write a bit about what the life of a musician is truly like, although I'm going to take a few detours along the way.

These are just my opinions and prejudices, but there are a few items I consider musicians to be able to do.

What is a musician? Is someone who performs exclusively on an instrument a musician? Obviously not, but it is a question of attitude and competence in a musician's chosen avenue of expression.

For example, I feel that true musicians are those that have their craft down enough that they can play, solo or collectively, with just their instrument for at least an hour or so.

Someone that can play bits and pieces of a song without mastering it all the way though isn't a musician in my book, mainly because they don't have the attitude or the fortitude to learn the entire song.

There's also a certain level of competence involved as well. For instance, I can play some piano and do so just for fun and on my own tunes. But I would never consider myself a "pianist" because I'm not competent to play an entire set by myself on that instrument.

On guitar? Yes. I could sit down and play for about four hours by myself creating music with just my chosen instrument without even opening my mouth. To me, that's what I've always aimed for and is the highest classification of musicianship I can think of.

What about vocalists? Are they musicians? Well, that depends - on my prejudices, that is.

If a singer can sing compellingly and competently by themselves or with an instrument such as a guitar or piano, I would say yes, they are a musician. But someone who can only sing to pre-fab backing tracks live isn't really a musician in my book.

Frank Sinatra to me is the epitome of a vocalist who was truly a musician, both in his attitude and the way he viewed his talents. Sinatra always insisted performing with a live orchestra or band because that's what he did. It would never have occurred to him to play without a band. That would be "unmusicianly" to him. His viewpoint was from that of an artist, a musician, because that's the era he grew up in.

In this day and age technology is increasingly blurring the line between what is "musicianly" and what isn't. Now, don't get me wrong, because I'm a music technology junkie - from using loop pedals in a performance to digitalized, "virtual" instruments to enhance a performance, I'm all over that. If it's something that's cool and I can use it during a performance, I'm going to do it.

Yes, I do have a guitar synthesizer. And man, it's amazing and a lot of fun, and I've adapted it for use in performance.

I think one aspect of being a musician is being able to be self-contained. If one can use loop pedals and other effects to make a performance more interesting and keep it all going - but not to the point you are no longer the primary focus - then I think that's great. But if all you can do is sing to karaoke CDs and think you're a musician, I've got news - you may be a "performer," but you're not a "musician."

At least not in my jaded eyes.

(Mark Miller is co-editor of weekender.)

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