Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 28, 2010

Read My Lips … and Sing!

This is one of a series of accounts of my company’s Global Jam band’s preparation for our gig at a big company conference in June. 25 players from 11 countries on 6 continents are learning 35 songs to play live at a gala event. See other posts under “Global Jam,” under “Music” in the “Categories” pull-down navigation bar in the right column.

The Global Jam On Stage

The Global Jam On Stage

Since the last Global Jam post, we’ve had two Sunday conference calls. As I previously described, these calls are scheduled to catch the Australians just before bedtime at 11 p.m., which is the middle of the day for our colleagues in Europe and South Africa, 8 a.m. on the East Coast of the U.S., and, yes, I’m on the phone at 5 a.m. in Los Angeles. It’s a good thing we don’t have any players in Hawaii or Guam, or we’d never find a reasonable time for the call. I think I have the easiest schedule, even with the early wake-up call, because I still have all of Sunday in front of me when the call’s done.

During these two calls — both of which ran significantly over the scheduled one hour — we’ve established the answers to all the key questions around the 35 numbers in the set list: who’s playing which instruments (and we have multiple guitarists, drummers, keyboard players, bassists and singers); is there a lead sheet (the basic song pattern with notes and chords); are there horn parts, vocal parts, lyrics and do we know where we might have to shorten the song and, perhaps most important, how will we end the song (many popular songs recordings fade out: not an option for a live stage band)?

As my blog brother and fellow harmonica player, Niels, wrote, one of the fundamental facts we must establish is the key in which we’ll play each song. Not every singer can sing in the same key as a popular recording artist. The singer’s range has to be tempered by how possible it is for the band to transpose the song into a different key when necessary. Keyboardists and guitarists can transpose fairly easily, but it can be a stiff challenge for our excellent horn section. Follow Niels and his accounts of the band’s preparations from his point of view in the Netherlands, HERE.

We’ve also established the players in each of the numbers. Not all 25 members play on all the songs, and we rotate the parts according to musical taste and ability. Niels and I are a good example. With about 5 numbers lending themselves to harmonica solos, we decided between the two of us which tunes we’d play, and we’ll share the harp duties on one really rocking number that Niels will sing in Dutch.

Yes, as I mentioned in my previous post, each of our singers from abroad will perform a number in their native language, which is one of the highlights of the show (we’re letting the Australians sing in English). It’s also a notable opportunity for all the members of the band to be exposed to music we would never hear otherwise. The backup singers on these songs get the special treat of learning foreign-language lyrics.

Certainly the most extreme example of adapting to a foreign language is the number that Huy, our colleague from Vietnam, will perform in Vietnamese. The song calls for a female vocal, too, and Alicia, whose native language is Mandarin, has stepped forward to take on this daunting challenge. How will she manage it? Here’s where virtual technology, which has been a hallmark of the Global Jam’s success since its inception 5 years ago, plays a key role. As I’ve previously described, we rely not only on our regular telephone conferences, but we have a number of online resources, including a wiki, which is core to the band’s collaboration. The music and vocal directors of each number post lyrics, lead sheets and any other important details; vocalists and instrumentalists on each number can post comments; special arrangements, especially horn parts, are there, too.

Huy and Alicia have taken this use of technology one step farther. In order to assist Alicia with learning lyrics in a very different language from her own, they’ve had video/audio conference calls via computer using Skype, the Internet phone service. With a desktop camera at each end, showing each one the other’s face on the computer screen, Huy is able to sing the words of her part to Alicia, so that she can hear the pronunciation. Not only that, the camera lets her see his mouth forming the words. My company is full of brilliant people like these two young technologist/musicians, and a whole bunch of them are in the band!

It’s probably occurred to you that not every random group of musicians would attempt a thing like the Global Jam is doing, much less pull it off. Here’s one thing that I believe makes it work. These are extremely talented and well-trained musicians, of course. They can devise horn charts and sort out various keyboard lines. They have the chops to play the songs. Lots of musicians can do that, all over the world. These also are technology professionals who are accustomed to collaborating in virtual enterprises: designing, building and operating complex systems in association with colleagues located all over the world. Every day, their regular jobs involve the coordination of extremely advanced methodologies, processes and skills which absolutely must coalesce around a shared goal, or else highly visible failures show up in front of very demanding clients. They bring this same discipline to the Global Jam.

June 8 is showtime. About 10 weeks to go.

More to come.

Practice, gang. Practice!

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