Music

A Stage Name? Why Not Dance a Bit More?

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I gently kicked the vintage, boxy suitcase that was on the floor between me and a group of 15 second graders. The suitcase literally vibrated with all types of rattling, clanging and ringing sounds.

“You want to see what’s in there?”, I asked.

They erupted, “Yes!”

I opened the suitcase to reveal more than 20 percussion instruments of various sizes, makes, functions and models. In a frenzy, they began to reach for them.

“Woah! Wait a second”, I instructed. “If you want to play one of those, you have to do something first.”

“What?”, they asked in unison.

“You need to think up a stage name. This is a music class and one of the best things about playing music is that you can make up a new name for yourself. You can have your regular name and you can have your music name. I have one”, I revealed. “My real name is John. But when I play music, I’m Willie Marble. It’s cool to have a stage name. It’s lots of fun.”

One of the best things about teaching second graders is that they believe just about anything you tell them. And they are game to try just about anything.

Some may consider it a bit silly or foolish for a 60 year-old man to have a make believe name and persona. But there is a long history of musicians with stage names. Muddy Waters’ real name was McKinley Morganfield. Howlin’ Wolf’s was Chester Burnett. And that’s simply a start. Jay Z’s real name is Shawn Carter, Stephanie Germanotta is Lady Gaga and Dana Owens’s stage name is Queen Latifah.

Not to be outdone, the names these kids came up with were priceless: Lion Slayer, Crazy Bone, Lightning Bolt, Jeffrey McMoe, Funky Nose, Princess Cotton Candy, Howlin’ Hound Dog and Ruby Jewels to name only a few. And stage names are for adults as well. The three background singers in my current band each has a stage name, Queen Victoria, Honey Bee and Jackie Thunder. Together they comprise the “World Famous Marblettes”.

Having a second name and identity allows a certain amount of freedom to step outside yourself. For performers, that can be an advantage. One of the most important characteristics of music and art is that it allows for the individual to “color outside the lines” without being unduly penalized or chastised. It allows you the extra space to stretch your imagination, vision and sense of self. A stage name and alternative persona allows you to be a bit silly, act a bit foolish and stretch and test the boundaries of creativity. That’s one of the reasons why music is the most effective tool in our educational arsenal to teach out-of-the-box, creative thinking.

And while that is all great and valuable, the fact is, it’s also just plain fun. And if you can’t have fun playing music, what’s the point? As Margaret Renkl recently wrote in the NY Times, “A person who is not afraid of looking like a fool gets to do a lot more dancing”.

Having a stage name and alternative identity can be lots of fun. Although, as a general rule, if you begin to assume four or five alter egos or identities, you might want to seek some professional help.

But one or two? Why not take the opportunity to dance a bit more?

The Gig from Hell

By Rev. Steve Chambers

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        For 35 years or so, off and on, l sang and played the guitar for money. Semi professionally, l called it. I played solo gigs (gig is what musicians call them when they want to sound cool), and l played in duos, trios and bands. It was generally a fun time, performing in clubs, concerts and festivals.  The money was not particularly good, if you added in the practice time, the broken strings and the instrument repairs. But l found great satisfaction in performing my original songs to an enthusiastic crowd. This is what is considered a good gig.

      But there were bad gigs too, the ones in which the club owner disappears when it's time to pay you, or when the bachelor party in the audience has decided to play spitball with their napkins or the ones in which the acoustics in the room are so terrible that you can not hear yourself sing. Ever try singing along with someone when neither of you can hear anything but feedback and crowd noise? And there were fistfights, cigarette smoke, arguments .... The list goes on and on.

  Recently l read about the sort of musical engagement that professionals like to call "the gig from hell". It was concerning the musicians who were hired to perform on the Titanic. Okay, so we all know how that ended, and it is true that none of the musicians could get seats in a lifeboat, and they all perished. If that wasn't degrading enough, they didn't get paid at the end of the night, a night for which they gave their life, and included moments of extreme pandemonium, wet feet, and having to play "Nearer my God to thee" to a rather oblivious audience. Drunks throwing spitballs were the least of their worries.

    The musicians had been quartered in second class, no surprise there, in cramped rooms next to the potato washer. There were actually two separate bands, who most likely didn't even know each others songs, but they chose to combine forces and "jam" in their last hours. I am not making this up. Realizing that as they were 2nd class passengers, they would never get a seat in a lifeboat and that the end was near, they took it upon themselves to comfort the remaining passengers with song. They played for several hours through the worst of conditions, on an uneven stage to a very distracted audience. Some survivors, seated in their lifeboats, recall hearing "light, cheerful music, ragtime, waltzes and comic songs" drifting across the water. These were heroes in every sense of the word. Minutes before the ship broke apart, the men bid each other farewell, and with great dignity, wandered off to meet their demise in their own personal way. Wallace Hartley, the bandmaster, slipped his violin into his valise, strapped it to his body, and together they faced the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

    A few weeks after the tragedy, the band was hailed the world over. These brave men, without a thought to their own safety, had brought hope and  comfort to many others. Editorials, speeches, sermons and reams of worshipful poetry celebrated their deed, and letters of condolence poured into the homes of their families.

        So, the gig killed them. But they were immortalized, which is arguably  better than crappy pay at the end of the night.  To add insult to injury, two weeks after the tragedy, the families received letters from the agent who booked the band, asking to be reimbursed for the band uniforms. And while the band was idolized around the world, the owners of the Titanic, successfully fought the families' attempt to gain back pay. Some gigs nothing goes right.

    The body of Wallace Hartley, along with his violin, was retrieved from the icy waters off Newfoundland and brought home to Colne, his birthplace in the hills of Lancashire. Seven bands followed his casket in the funeral procession, as well as local dignitaries, and musicians from all over England. Thousands lined the route and all businesses closed for the day.

    This sort of ending doesn't happen when you play rock and roll in clubs, even on a bad night. You might end up with a sore throat from singing all night. And the drunks might stumble up, buy you a drink and tell you they know somebody in the "industry", someone who can help you out.
But unless you spill your drink, your feet don't get wet...and you won't have to sleep next to the potato washer.