Written by Ray Turner for the British Columbia Music Magazine in May 2006.
Well, I am one. Someone who spends too much time noodling in the basement on my saxophone when I could be "out there" playing with others. And why am I a BM? There are lots of reasons, mostly in my head, like “I’m not good enough” – “I don’t have enough time” – “It’s too difficult to find people I could fit in with” And so on.
If you respond to any of this, you might benefit by dropping in on a session with the Kelowna Basement Musicians.
I have always played something: banjolele, harmonica, piano, clarinet, guitar, accordion – in that chronological order, as I remember – but never very well, just for fun, and self-taught. I have a good ear and I always thought that was enough, but it wasn't. At the age of 63, I decided I should play at least one instrument "properly." I bought a tenor saxophone and found it difficult. I could hear the right notes and the sound I wanted inside my head but nothing came together. I noticed my life-long aversion to sheet music kicking in, so I made the effort, found a few different teachers, trying to play “by the book.” I did not do very well with any of them. I decided that if I was to be serious and really master the dots and staves, all that stuff, I needed to focus on that, and that alone. My mistake was to think that if I got away – from work and other annoying distractions – I could do it. Why did I think that Mexico would be a good place to go?
I drove south in my van practising and reading How To Read Music at rest stops. Eventually, I came to a more or less permanent camping spot near La Paz, Baja Sur. Here is where I had an unusual musical experience.
As I enjoyed a beer and the ocean view overlooking the beautiful Bahia de Los Muertes (Bay of the Dead) I was surprised to hear the sound of a saxophone. I chased down the source of the music and found a woman of about forty years playing Blue Skies. I listened to her for a while and then introduced myself, saying, “Guess what? I also have a tenor sax.” I explained about my mission to learn to read music. For her part, the woman, Lynda, told me she had attained her high standard of reading by playing regularly in a community orchestra in Missouri. However, she said she found improvising extremely difficult. It seemed that on the one hand, I needed to get my ear out of the way and pay more visual attention to the sheet music, whereas Lynda needed to switch from seeing the notes on the page to hearing them. It seemed we had arrived at a beach in Mexico from different ends of the musical spectrum.
We became friends, musically speaking, and spent a couple of weeks practicing together. I was learning to read, but painfully slowly. Lynda also seemed stuck in her attempts to find the notes she wanted.
One time, I asked her a question. "When you’re trying to improvise, what do you see inside your head, in your mind’s eye?”
Lynda answered, “I see the notes on the page. I have memorized them.”
I said, “That can’t be good. It’s hard to not remember something you have memorized so well. Try to see something else. Anything but the notes. Maybe blackness. Or you could replace those images of the score with something appropriate to the song you're playing. If it's Blue Skies, imagine pictures of blue skies, or the ocean, or blue rabbits, anything other than the notes. Try closing your eyes while you play."
I am not sure if that helped but something must have clicked with Lynda because a few days later she suggested we play at an open stage night at a local marina cafe. We plucked up our courage and did just that, managing to get through our Blue Skies duet quite well, even got a round of applause.
The rest of the evening was great. A guitarist asked if I knew I Can’t Get Started. I said yes and he took off at a furious speed, much faster than Bunny Berrigan’s recording. I couldn’t keep up all the time but it was a great learning experience – for me, not the audience. Encouraged, I stuck around La Paz for a few weeks. I was invited to play at the cafe a few times on their quiet nights. I would hide outside in the palms, warming up the sax until I heard a song in a key I could handle, and then appear inside for a chorus or two. I enjoyed playing with the trio of guitar, bass and drums. Too much, apparently. I was too keen. I wanted to play all the time. Eventually the leader of the house band, Jorge, told me two things; “Por favor, Raymundo, do not play while I am singing.” and “Go away and practice.” Years later, I am still practicing but somehow got stuck in the basement! I can read a score now, not always able to keep up to speed but at least I can work out a song in my own time when I need to.
That trip to Mexico, and more time spent playing alone, gave birth to the idea of creating some kind of network for musicians like myself. I thought there must be a whole lot of people who want to get together with other musicians, but they either don’t know how, or are too shy to “get out there” and do it. I call them the “basement musicians” though they might be playing in a bedroom, garage, woodshed or closet.
On my return to Canada, I learned the Rotary Centre for the Arts in Kelowna were interested in the needs of musicians also. We got together and out of our discussions emerged the Basement Musicians' Circles. We meet on the last Tuesday of each month. These are informal sessions where a number of interested persons (from five to nineteen so far) sit in a circle with their instruments, voices and compositions and volunteer to play, or be played to. It is mostly acoustic folk and blues, and guitars are predominant. More than fifty individuals have dropped in to the sessions so far. They range from beginners to experienced performers and see it as an a opportunity to share music and network.
You are welcome to join us if you or your friends respond to the following:
• Are you tired of playing and practising all by yourself in your basement, bedroom or woodshed?
• Are you looking for a good reason to "get out there" and play that instrument you’ve had stored for too many years?
• Has singing alone in the shower lost its charm?
• Do you want to improve your skills in listening and “playing by ear?”
• Would you like to get more experience at performing?
• Would you like to find other musicians with whom to practice or perform?
• Do you want to try out your stuff on a friendly bunch of your peers?