Saturday, April 21, 2007

Use It or Lose It

All my life I've had a tendency to take the more difficult route in learning life's lessons: pull-ups on the clothes bar in your closet is not a good idea; flipping someone off in front of your history teacher will draw you a little time in detention; stealing the lids to the brand new garbage cans in order to play Knights of the Round Table will get you chased down by your mother; and peeing directly into the wind...well, you get the idea. Granted, these are all examples from my childhood and early adolescence, but trust me when I say that the process has followed me into my adult life. I've heard my most recent life lesson expressed thousands of times, but for me, lessons just never seem to sink in and take hold until I experience them first hand. And the lesson is this: use it or lose it.

Last week, a friend of mine informed me of the American Idol Songwriting Contest and invited me to submit a song. I guess another lesson I should learn is always see what you're up against before agreeing to do something. Since I was feeling cocky over completing my first song in three years, I took on the challenge. That was a week ago, Tuesday. The next day, a thought occurred to me: I wonder when the contest deadline is? I looked it up and my jaw dropped: April 17th, tax day. I had one week. Game over. Not gonna happen. I was already in the process of putting in twenty hours of overtime at work, and my taxes still weren't done. How in the world would I write and record a song in seven days?

Although the cards seemed to be stacked against me, I decided not to pack it in. I mean, I still had seven days, right? Actually, six. I spent Wednesday getting our taxes done. At some point, I don't remember exactly when, a concept came to mind that I thought I could run with, and I spent the next several days jotting down ideas and experimenting with rhyme schemes. I also pulled out my guitar and played around with several chord progressions until I settled on one I liked. After filling several pages with my scribbles, I finally sat down Monday morning to organize to my thoughts. I worked for about an hour and made significant progress, but that was the only free time I had. I entered Tuesday the 17th, deadline day, with an incomplete song.

I figured I had maybe two hours on Tuesday to finish, then record a demo of the song. HA! I pulled my Fostex MR-8 digital multitracker, and it's user manual, out of the drawer that housed it for the past year, and blew off the dust. Kyra was excited because she likes to put on the headphones and sing into the microphone while I accompany her on guitar. To her, this was playtime. To me, it was time to get everything set up so that when I took her to school, I could get down to business. We played for about an hour, taking turns singing songs. I love playing the guitar and having the girls make up tunes and lyrics on the fly. More often than not, they come up with some good stuff. I've been tempted to use some of it, giving them credit, of course.

I took Kyra to school, then went to work. I pulled out my guitar to lay down the guitar track to my demo. Remember, I didn't have a finished song yet. I thought I'd lay down the accompaniment track and then fashion the lyrics and melody to fit. After about ten false starts, I finally laid down an acceptable track. It was only a demo, after all, and I had already given in to the idea that whatever I presented was not going to be perfect. I just didn't have the time and I was OK with that. I recued the track to listen to it, but there was nothing there. Silence. What the crap! I forwarded through the track and found the beginning, roughly a minute in. Since I hadn't used the recorder in such a long time, I forgot to recue it after all of those false starts. Oh well, at least it was there.

I turned my attention to the lyrics, and after massaging them for close to an hour, I came to something I could live with (by American Idol standards, anyway). I then began to rehearse them with the guitar track I recorded earlier. This was the first time that I would attempt to sing the song in my full, head voice. As I was writing the song, I would rehearse it in a light falsetto that was usually audible only to myself. As soon as I sang the first verse, I knew I was in trouble: the key I had written the song in was too high for me to sing comfortably. Crrrrrrrrap! It wasn't always this way. I used to be able to sing up in the rafters with little or no problem, but since I haven't really used my voice consistently over the past few years, I've gotten a little rusty. OK, a LOT rusty. Life lesson? If you don't use it, you lose it. I got it.

Normally, I would say "No problem" and just transpose the song into a lower key, but I couldn't do that because my guitar is jacked up. It buzzes when I play certain chords, which is the reason I wrote the song in the key of buzzing. So I was stuck. I also realized that the song was too long. If I was going to gut out the song in the key of E, I was going to have to shorten it, which meant re-recording the guitar track. What the CRAP!!

By this time, Diane was home from work and the girls were home from school. My "two hour project" was stretching to four hours and beyond. I recorded the guitar track over, this time with only a couple of restarts and recues, and then moved on to my vocals. I figured I'd give it one run through and be done with it, but I screwed up the first verse. I hit the "Undo" button which was only supposed to delete my vocals, but it also erased the intro of the guitar part. MOTHER PUS-BUCKET!! WHAAAAT THE CRAAAAAAP!! I was furious. It was late afternoon, I had been working on this song for most of the day and had nothing to show for it. I'd had enough and was ready to pack it in.

"Don't quit," Diane admonished. She assured me that she would keep the girls busy and gave me the green light to finish the job, so I returned to my makeshift recording studio. I laid down the guitar track AGAIN and quickly moved to the vocals. I practiced them a couple of times to warm up my voice and to ensure no screw ups, then hit "Record". I got through the first verse fine, but began to struggle at the end of the 1st chorus. Verse 2 was OK, but I was outright hurting by the end of the chorus. I mustered all of my strength to get through the bridge, but by the final chorus, I was flat out croaking the melody. It wasn't pretty. "It's a demo. It's a demo. It's a demo," I kept telling myself as I finished the song. Only later did it occur to me that I could have recorded the vocals in sections, taking a breather to rest my voice. But I wanted it done, and I got it done.

I walked into the kitchen where Diane and the girls sat at the table, grinning. Kyra had her hands over her ears, Kailey mimicked me singing, and Diane asked me if I was OK, all of them basically busting my balls. "It's not pretty, but I'm done," I replied. Not really. It took me another couple of hours to read the manual, then go through the long and tedious process of converting the tracks to a stereo .WAV file, uploading the .WAV file to my computer, converting the .WAV file to an .MP3 file, and submitting it to the Idol contest. But I eventually got it done and I was exhausted. And even though I got it done, it felt like I had wasted the day.

Lesson learned? Use it or lose it. If I used my multitracker more often, I'd know the ins and outs and not have to rely so heavily on the user's manual.

Use it or lose it. If I sang more regularly, I'd maintain some of my range. Granted, getting older will suck some of that range from me, but still.

Use it or lose it. If I'd write more regularly, I might have had a song already in the can that I could have tweaked/submitted instead of killing myself to write and record a whole new song.

Use it or lose it. Lesson learned? Probably not.


Anonymous said...

You can post your song and listen to what others have submitted to the American Idol songwriting contest.


the battered ham said...

Thanks for the link! It's cool to hear what others have come up with. After listening to a couple of submissions, I think I'm going to need to do a little (a lot of) tweaking before I'm ready to post it anywhere.


eshinee said...

You did it! Cool beans! Wanna hear sometime.

I had a song mostly ready to go but discovered on the last day that my co-writer was ineligible because he's not an American. Boohoo. Ah well. Next time. Like, American Idol will never end, right?