Monday, December 14, 2009

Ten minutes till SHOW-TIME!

I have a quick, "ten minute 'till show-time" routine that I thought might be of interest for those of you who are directing or performing on stage.

1. Do I need to visit the restroom?
2. Is my cell phone on vibrate?
3. Is my music in order?
4. Are all the repeats, key and meter changes highlighted?
5. Can I see the director?

If you are directing, this might be a good idea to remind your performers of these.

good gigging!

Larry Marra

(Be sure to listen to podcast, musicteachers911, available free from the iTunes store)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It was all the keyboard's deFAULT!

Last night, I went to a local jazz club to hear a friend play with his nine piece combo. I was also hoping that I could even get in a little swing dancing.

I had barely got through the door when I was warmly greeted by him and the band. OK, maybe a little TOO warmly. Seems that the pianist never showed up, and they were hoping that I would sit in with them on a keyboard that was kept at the club.

Since I was there anyway and genuinely love playing with good bands, I agreed. I had never heard of the brand or model of the keyboard, so I turned the volume down and touched a key.

Yup, sounds like a piano to me. Show time!

Everything was going smoothly for about the first 20 minutes. Then something happened.

I am not sure how, but I guess I must have been watching the music more than the keys. I am guessing that I overshot the keys and unintentionally touched a control button on the programming pad. All of the sudden, the keyboard sounded very strange. The best way to describe it is to say that it sounded like the background track of an old science fiction movie!

OK, we're in the middle of a song, I have a solo coming up in about 30 seconds and I need to get this puppy back to sounding like a piano ASAP!

Luckily, this was not my first rodeo. Years of experience has taught me that most keyboards default to a piano sound when they are first turned on. I frantically looked for a power button and pressed it twice.

After about three seconds, it was back to the default piano setting just in time for the piano solo.

Even though it was my fault, it was the keyboard's default that save me.

good gigging!

Larry Marra

Monday, November 23, 2009

Got a minute?

This post is so bizarre, I still can't believe it even as I am writing.....

Yesterday, I was to play piano with an eight piece band for a live Christian Radio Show at our local Shopping Center. We were instructed by the band leader to arrive and be ready for a 30 minute rehearsal at 4 PM since we go "live" at 4:30.

I arrived at 3:50 with my keyboard. I play this show every month, so I was very confident that the radio engineer would get me up and running in about 2 minutes. (He did) Thank Heavens for qualified sound guys!

The bass player wasn't there at 4. I programed the keyboard to spilt keys. This makes the lower keys sound like an electric bass and the upper keys sound like a piano. Rehearsal went very nicely, and the bumper and spot music sounded great. The vocal soloist was very pleased. The sound guy boosted my bass EQ, so that the bass keys sounded nice and full.

When doing radio and TV, one eye is always on the music and director, the other is on the Radio Producer. When the producer holds up 10 fingers, it means that the show is going "live" in 10 minutes. Five fingers mean five minutes left, etc.

After the producer held up the "One minute until "live" signal, the bass player walks in! He plugs in, turns to me, and asks, "What did I miss?"

There is absolutely no way that I can tell him every cut and vamp for an hour show in less than a minute. I told him that I would do my best to walk him through the show. I de-selected the split keyboard function to make the entire keyboard a piano tone again.

The producer points to the show host and the director counts us off. It only took one note to discover that the bass guitar was horribly OUT OF TUNE! He also had the wrong song up. For the next hour, despite my coaching, I don't think he played a single line correctly.

Normally, I don't play the lower keys when a bass player is there. But extreme cases call for extreme measures. The special guest vocalist this month is a friend, so I decided to drown out the bass part and make sure that he had a good background in which to sing.

When the show was over, the drummer leaned over to me and said, "Nice Save". The director was also very pleased with the show. He never questioned why the piano was playing the lower keys with and bass player there. He also never asked me how the bass player did, so I didn't volunteer any observations concerning the bass parts.

As I started to pack up, the bass player turns to me and asks, "so when do we get paid?"

I smiled and said, "You'll have to take that up with the director".

good gigging!

Larry Marra

Monday, October 19, 2009

Lights, camera, mixer mania!

Lights, camera, mixer mania!

While performing at a church as their musical guest Sunday morning,
our gospel group learned at the last minute that our sound engineer wasn't going to be there.
The music minister kindly offered the services of their light and video person to fill in on our 24 channel soundboard.
What seemed like a good idea at the time suddenly turned horribly wrong.

Here are the gruesome details...

Light and video people are used to constantly
changing the settings on the light board to keep the visual interest of the listeners.
They know that keeping a certain light setting on the stage too long can get boring quickly.
A good light technician will gradually change stage light settings about every three seconds.
(When I was playing larger venues, We also included a fog machine and flash pots.)

A sound technician does just the opposite. If the group is well balanced, the best thing to do is to
leave the board well enough alone. Adjusting the sound quality too often will distract from the song
and finally become annoying.

As you might have guessed, the performance was wrought with ear-splitting hums and squeals of feedback
constantly throughout the show.

Solos weren't heard, and lyrics were buried under backing instruments.


1. Check with everyone the night before and make sure they can be there.

2. Sit out the first number and balance the sound myself as close as possible.
Then try and balance my instrument as best I can.

if you want something done right?
Larry Marra

Monday, September 14, 2009

Don't shoot the wounded!!!

Everyone knows that every music ensemble has it's share of strong and weak players. Even the best players can make mistakes now and again. Todays tip will focus on what to do when one of our band-mates make a mistake.

Here is a quick scenario....

I was playing in the house band for a local radio show. All the musicians were accomplished and the guest vocalist heads our local college music department, so is very polished at his craft. We were handed a chart for one of his feature songs moments before the show was to go on the air live. The horn charts had printed part music, but no lyrics. I was playing the piano from a piano/vocal score.

Then.......... it happened.....................

The vocalist forgot to sing the chorus every time it came around. He just kept singing one verse after another.

Since I had the score in front of me, I chose to follow the vocalist and skip the choruses as well. The horns kept playing the chart as written. This means that they were playing the chorus horn lines over the vocalists verses. The bass player knew something was wrong and started playing by ear to follow the vocalist as well.

So, the score is, two rhythm instruments and vocalist against four horns with the drummer tapping a steady beat from the sidelines. No one stopped playing. Let me tell you, it made for some pretty interesting counterpoint!

When the horns ran out of measures, the vocalist sang a tag ending and conducted the rhythm section to a pretty nice finish. The studio audience enjoyed it.

After the show, the vocalist approached me and asked what happened. I simply showed him his sheet music, and he knew immediately what he had done. He apologized to the band, but we just figured that it was all in a days work.

So, when a band-mate makes a mistake, don't stare and point out to the audience who's fault it is. Just keep plugging along as if it is all part of the show.

I had lunch with the bandleader a few days later. (He is one of the horn players). We discussed in great detail this incident. He informed me that I was in the wrong by following the vocalist and not sticking to the chart. His premise is that the vocalist would have heard how wrong his lead line was, and it would jar his memory to sing the chorus.

So who was right?

Well, for this show, I will have to say that he was.
Why? Because it is his band and he is the one signing my paycheck.

What will I do if this ever happens again? If it is with the same band, I will stick to the chart and do whatever the director wants me to do.

If this happens while I am playing with another band? I must say that I will do exactly what I had done. My role as accompanist is to make the vocalist look good and not tip the audience off that he/she made a mistake.

So remember, when a band-mate makes a mistake, do not focus any attention on it as the audience might not have noticed. Just keep playing and encouraging everyone to play at the top of their game.

Larry Marra

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Drum Dynamics tip

Last weekend, while playing our local county fair, I learned about a neat little product that is a must for all working drummers. It is a hybrid drumstick made by Pro-Mark called "rods". I was on the piano and heard the drummer balanced with the rest of the band without being isolated in a plexiglass drum cage. He was using a new type of stick called, RODS.

They are ten small dowel rods the length of a drumstick and about the diameter of a telephone cords bundled with tape. This is a great tool for the percussionist who want to playlouder than brushes but softer than regular drumsticks. This product allows the drummer to play unrestricted but keeps the volume balanced with the other instruments.

Pro Mark makes six models of various woods and materials. They are all under $20. Log on to or take a trip to your local music store. I am not sponsored by promark, but couldn't find any other manufacturers that make a similar product.

I encourage all working drummers, band directors (especially elementary directors). To check them out.

Larry Marra

Make sure to subscribe to the musicteachers911 podcast available for free from the iTunes store.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

top five biggest mistakes

Here is the short list of the top five biggest mistakes that I have seen when performing with professional groups.

1. Do not play your instrument between songs. Practice at home.

2. Return from the breaks a little beforehand. Don't make the band leader chase you down.

3. Arrive early enough to be completely set-up and relaxed before the performance starts.

4. Assist the drummer and band leader set up and tear down their equipment. Even if you only take an extra trip with extra stands or the band library, the effort might be enough to impress the leader to call you more frequently.

5. Do not over eat (and especially over drink) at venues that provide free refreshments.

Larry Marra

Friday, August 7, 2009

100 best music major online archives

Here are two websites for college music majors that I have found very informative.

One is a page from called 100 best online archives for music majors.

Here is the link:

The other is from, Andy Zweibel, a very ambitious student from Miami University of Florida geared especially for music majors.

It is:

Yours Musically,

Larry Marra
Music Educational Specialist
musicteachers911 Consulting Services
Address: 2935 Robin Road
Dayton, OH 45409



Be sure to subscribe to the musicteachers911 music education podcast available free from iTunes. Just search the iTunes store for "musicteachers911" and click subscribe. It's free!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Blind leading the blind.

Here's one that happened last night as I was sitting in at a local pub involving a trumpet, piano, bass and drums. Here is the way we were situated onstage. If you were in the house looking at the stage, from left to right, 1 trumpet, 2 piano/director, 3 me on electric bass, and 4 the drummer. This was the first time I was playing with them and I met them just as we were about to perform. The leader passed out a few fake books, so I was confident that this was going to be a good night. It didn't last long...

Early on, during the standard, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", I noticed that the band was playing the usual meter of 12/8, while the drummer was punching out a straight four beat pattern. It didn't take long for the tempo to wander to the point where it was all a jumbled mess.

I stopped playing, hoping that the drummer and piano/director could salvage the song to the point where I would jump back in a the head (top).

This is when I noticed that the drummer had his music stand facing away from the band! I tried to get his attention, but he wasn't listening either. He was in his own little world, unaware that he wasn't playing the same "feel" as the rest of us.

OK, so now I turn to the piano/director only to find that he has his head buried in the book so deep he doesn't see me either. Remember that I am standing next to him.

I tried to get his attention only to find that he wasn't listening either.

So now I glance at the trumpeter. He is a great musician and was very aware of the disaster happening, so he stopped playing as well. All he could do was shrug his shoulders as if to say, "Whatcha gonna Do?" The piano and drums didn't even notice when half the band dropped out!

Enough is enough, so I start yelling at everyone to stop playing. They do, and the audience is relieved. I tell them that we would now play one we actually know. They chuckle because there is no fooling them, and my comment showed a human side. Humor is great for relieving tension.

I invite the drummer to pass me his music stand, so that I could place it in line with the director so he wouldn't have to turn his head anymore to watch for cues. It would have worked to, if the piano/director was giving cues. He wasn't. I ended up watching the pianist hands to see when he was slowing down or adding a tag at the songs end. Then I would tell the drummer.

Moral? A good band consists of everyone watching and listening to each other, making sure that their part is blending with everyone else. If you can't hear every other instrument onstage, someone isn't playing properly.

Worst case scenario?

You have the bling leading the blind.

Yours Musically,

Larry Marra

Be sure to subscribe to the musicteachers911 music education podcast available free from iTunes. Just search the iTunes store for "musicteachers911" and click subscribe.

Friday, July 24, 2009

I just called... to say.... you're too loud

Here's a neat little techno-trick using text messaging for balance purposes.

I was playing bass for a church luncheon with the University of Dayton's Big Band. They use a conductor and student conductor. I left my small bass amp in the car as I was hoping that the church would have a better one. It turned out that the church had a very nice 16 channel PA system that they were using to drive one mic to run a short business meeting before the concert. The PA volume was set and no one assigned to run the sound.

I plugged my bass into their system and it sounded very nice. They had two large main speakers on tall stands. One was by the band and the other was 40 feet away near the back of the room. I decided to leave my amp in the car. Because of there being no sound engineer, I would have no idea if my bass would be balanced with the rest of the group.

Just before the concert, I unplugged the speaker near the audience so that the only sound source would be the speaker near the band.

During the first song in which the Faculty director was conducting, I noticed the student conductor standing near me. He was to direct two songs near the end of the concert.

I motioned him to come over as I had an idea.

I asked if he would walk over to the back of the hall and text me as to the balance of the bass with the rest of the horns. I set the phone on vibrate and placed it on the music rack so I could see the message when it arrived.

He sent me a message that the bass was 20% too loud. I adjusted the volume from the bass guitar knob down two numbers. He then texted back, "PERFECT!"

The rest of the concert went well. I felt better knowing that the bass was not overshadowing the band.

In the old days before cell phones, I would have someone in the back of the hall motion with their hands if I was too loud. This works well unless the hall is dark and there is a spotlight on me blinding me from seeing into the house.

Text messaging would elevate this problem.

Larry Marra

Be sure to subscribe to the musicteachers911 music education podcast available free from iTunes. Just search the iTunes store for "musicteachers911" and click subscribe. It's free!

Sunday, July 5, 2009


I was playing the piano with a big band for a local Independence Day festival. The band was under a large tent in the street, but the audience started clearing out as the rain increased.

we were literally, high and dry. and were getting paid, so we kept on playing.

In the middle of one of the tunes, the rain shorted out the power to the stage. The band kept blowing away with the acoustic drummer, but the bass player, vocalist, and I were toast!

Since this was a street fair, the band supplied it's own PA and there was no sound engineers on this one. I quickly jumped off the stage and went to the light pole that housed the only receptacle that the entire band was using.

I tried to find an area of ground that wasn't in a puddle (plus, I was wearing rubber gym shoes) and frantically looked for a red reset button in the middle of the outlet.

Sure enough, there it was.

I crossed my fingers hoping not to get knocked down by an electrical shock, and hit the button.

Immediately, I heard the bass and vocals spring back to life. I jumped back onstage and yelled to the bass player, "NUMBER???"

He said, "Letter D in five" (measures)

I came in at letter D and the band finished the song without missing a beat.

Expect the unexpected!!

Make sure to subscribe to the iTunes podcast, musicteachers911, for more tips about music teaching and performance.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Power to the People

Here's one that happened last night that's a little embarrassing. I was to play the bass with a college gospel choir outdoors at their King's Island campus for a Spring Celebration. There were several roadies and sound engineers on hand to prepare the stage as there were a dozen bands to perform throughout the day. They were only to have only 10 minutes to set up between acts. 

It was an outdoor concert and the temperature was 92* in full Sun. I grabbed my bass, music and 30 foot cable and proceeded onstage with about a minute before the first song was to begin. A cable was already plugged into the amp and neatly rolled up on the top for me to plug into my bass. I did, and played a test note, but nothing sounded. I quickly switched cabled but still nothing. I check the power light and it was shining brightly. I yelled into the talk-back monitor that I had no sound and the engineers quickly descended upon me to trouble shoot the problem. 

(Here's the embarrassing part)......

The amp wasn't plugged in! The Sun was shining so brightly that the power light on the amp appeared to look lit, but wasn't.

Lesson learned is to visually check to see if the black power cord is actually plugged into an outlet.

My test note sounded clearly with about 5 seconds to spare.

No time for a sound check, the director is about to start.

Standing ovation after the show.

Thanks sound team.

Power to the People!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Stop, look and listen!!!

Have you ever had to sight-read a broadway show at the performance?
Last night I played the bass with the Sinclair College Show choir and sight-reading the pieces for their quarterly vocal choral performance.

The music wasn't extremely difficult, but the musical director loves to alter the form of the pieces to fit with certain skits, vamps, and written in dialogue that the choir adds in the middle of the songs.

The choir was to perform four broadway medleys. They were "Lion King", "Hairspray", "Grease", and "Guys and dolls".

The medleys segue immediately from one to the other, and the pianist had no time whatsoever to inform me about all the cuts and repeated sections that the music director had written in. 

To give you an example, we were to start one medley on page 41 which then was to repeat to page three!  None of these changes to the original score were penciled in to my music. 

(This was going to make for an interesting evening.)

When the pianist first saw me walk in, he was aghast. "Are you actually going to sight read this  entire concert????", he quipped while a look of stark panic shot across his face. "There's no way anyone could do this".

Let me interject to say that the accompanist has his masters in piano performance and is the keyboard professor for the College. He plays wonderfully and we have done other venues in the past with good results. His reaction wasn't that he doubted my ability to play the bass, or ever sight read well. He just knew that there was no way I would "mind-read" all the changes that the director interjected.

So what was I to do?

Don't panic. 

(This isn't the first time for me that it's been fourth and ten with no time left on the clock)

I positioned my music stand directly behind the pianist. So I could see his music as well as mine. I elected to stand to give me a bird's-eye view of his measures as well as mine. This also gave me a good vantage point if I needed to see his hands on the keys.

The pianist was so busy that he couldn't even give me a second to point to where on the music he was playing. 

Here's where those three little words that I learned in kindergarten about crossing the street comes in. "Stop, look and listen".

I would be playing  along with the combo. The very instant I could tell that the Show Choir had repeated or skipped to another section, I stopped playing. The piano was playing the bass clef notes in the piano part anyway, so the music didn't suffer at all. In fact, the music suddenly took on a lighter quality to keep the audience's attention.

Then I would look at his piano score to figure out where he was playing. When I felt that a bass entrance was appropriate, I would start playing again. This way the overall harmonic structure of the band didn't suffer with the root note being wrong. 

This also made the band sound more interesting as playing the bass on every beat gets a little monotonous, whereas cutting out and in occasionally keeps the listeners interest.

When I would see the word "freely" over a section, I would stop as it is very hard to play exactly when the piano plays the underlying chords. You can get very close, but not exact.

When the show was over, the pianist just sat on the piano bench shaking his head.

I asked what was wrong. He just whispered, "That was amazing". 

Then, he apologized for looking so shocked when he first saw me. He said that he just felt bad for me because of what I was up against musically.

"All in a night's work" I replied.

It's easy when you....

stop, look and listen.


Monday, May 25, 2009

It's the little things that count.

It's the little things that count.

Last night, I was the pianist with the Hauer 18 piece big band for the Miamisburg, Ohio Veteran's Memorial Day Dance. 
The band featured music from the 1940 WWII years and also included many of the Armed Forces Songs. 
Since I wasn't the Band Leader, my thoughts were concerned with being a good sideman. 

Thoughtful sideman will be offered work more then poor ones.

Here are some of my ideas ideas.

1. I always arrive at least 30 minutes before the downbeat to insure that my equipment is fully functional 
and i am not forgetting anything. This will allow me to scramble and get anything I need and still not be late.

2. I always help the band leader with additional equipment set up. 
The band leader not only has to set up and wire his own equipment, but also the band PA, 
18 music racks, 18 stand lights and pass out 18 band music books. Last nights band book had over 1200 charts.
One thing I noticed was how many other sidemen would show up to the performance at the last minute
with only their instrument and nothing else. Many didn't lift a finger to assist the leader with the set up duties.

3. I always volunteer my dolly and extension cords to anyone else who might need them.
I also have my name and cell number clearly marked to make sure I get them back.

4. I am never the last one to return to the stage after a break.

5. I make sure that any charts that I pull out of the book for that last set are filed in order after that set.

5. I make myself available after the performance to assist the leader with tear-down.

6. I search the stage after every else is gone to insure that nothing is left behind. 
I currently have the bass players guitar stand and will contact him so he doesn't worry about it.

7. In these troubled time, the more paying performances the better.

These tips will help to insure that you are always on the band leaders "call back" list.

Good Gigging,

Larry Marra

Monday, May 18, 2009

The top ten in my gig bag.

Here are 10 items that you might consider taking to your next gig.

1. Portable folding music rack with clothespins (in case you're outside).

2. Your own stand light (you never know how dark the stage will be).

3. extension cord. I carry a grounded, 25 foot-four outlet outdoor reel for my stand light, keyboard and amp and one left over. I also have a three t two pronged outlet adapter for older buildings.

4. An inexpensive dolly. I bought a fantastic one from called a magna cart. This dolly weights about five pounds and folds flat for transporting. It carries over 150 pounds. I added a bungee cord to keep things from shifting during transit. It cost $25 and had free shipping.

5. three apples (you can never assume that there will be food available when you get there). I had an hour drive to a four hour gig once, and was pretty hungry afterwards.

6. An extra 1/4 " amplifier cord and mic (for announcements). 

7. I take my gig clothes and wear jeans and a tee shirt to set up and tear down. If you are on a raised stage, make sure that your shoes are shined. 

8. breath mints, water and solid deodorant. 

9.  a GPS, or a  printout of the driving directions.

10. the cell number of the band leader (just in case).

I got this list the hard way. I hope that you find out how invaluable these items really are.

good gigging!


Sunday, April 26, 2009

location, location, location

Last week, I played electric bass guitar for our local senior center with the University of Dayton Big Band. UD purchased a rather large and heavy 400 watt bass amp for me to use for this.  

At rehearsals,  I love how this amp cuts through the horns and give a booming feel to the overall sound of the band. However, I don't like having to lug the thing around the campus and heave it in back of my car.  

For the performance last week, I decided to leave the big UD amp on campus and  take a much smaller and lighter 50 watt practice amp that I bought for my keyboards. In order for the bass sound to cut through the horns, I brought my ultimate support speaker stand that extends to a height of eight feet. Having the bass amp so high enabled the bass voice to be heard over the horns even from the back of the room. Of course, I tone of the bass voice was there, but not the gutsy booming feeling that you can only get with the larger amp. The good news is that it was an absolutely beautiful day and the little amp fit in the trunk of my new goldwing motorcycle. I rode to the venue with the bass guitar strapped to my back. After a long, gray winter in Ohio, there was no way that I was going to drive a car on such a perfect Spring day. 

For anyone who is thinking about getting a sound system, make sure to invest in good speaker stands so the you don't have to blast out the first few rows of people to be heard in the back.

The financial saving of not having to buy a larger and more powerful amps will pay for the stands. The additional height will make for a more overall balanced sound from anywhere in the room.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

printed gig charts

This week I am going to focus on printed gig charts. 

First, make a copy of the master part that you are playing and file away the master. Gig books get lost, drinks spilled on them, marked up with specific gig directions etc. 

Second, premark the music by taking a highlighter pen and highlight every key change, tempo change, dynamic marking, repeat, DS, coda,and every rehearsal number or letter.
Third, Tape multi page charts together so that they are all connected when placing on the music rack.

Fourth, highlight an arrow from every repeat, DS, and coda to the place in which it repeats.

Fifth, take a portable mp3 recorder to all rehearsals so that you can record the rest of the band playing this chart for later individual practice. I use a Boss micro BR digital recorder ($250) that fits in my pocket and creates mp3 files to load on my iPod for later use.

This easy tip will make every future rehearsal and gig a more pleasant experience. I learned this the hard way!

Don't forgot to check out and subscribe to the musicteachers911 podcast available for free on iTunes.

Hope all your gigs are successes!

Larry Marra

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Don't make a rule that you aren't willing to follow.

This week I am going to focus away from the professional side of performance and talk about something that I tried musically just for fun.
I heard about a great new site for meeting people of similar interests called
This free site is so simple to use, but such fun as it involves meeting people in your area with the same interests.

To get started, type in your zip code and search for meetup groups in your area. I found several in the Dayton OH are that looked appealing. Two that are the most fun are: Dayton Swing Dance and Dayton Folk music. 

The swing dance group meets at a local club every Wednesday evening and offers free swing dance lessons to the members. The first week, I walked in to discover that the instructor is the guitarist for one of the College gospel choirs I'm in. I learned to swing danced for two hours  and loved every minute of it. I have been back twice since and plan on making this a weekly event. If you are looking to find  groups of nice people  in which to spend a free evening or two. I highly suggest checking this out.

The other group is focused around folk music. This group mets at a coffeehouse once a month. Everyone brings a guitar and sits around the couches. Each person is given a turn to chose a favorite folk song and everyone just plays and sings along.  The first night I attended, I had a nice time as I had just bough a Washburn acoustic and have only used it on one professional gig since Christmas. Since I play a lot more bass and piano than guitar, I had hoped that this group would be a way to keep up my guitar chops hot while having a nice time with other musicians in the area.

Something about the overall  sound of the group bothered me though. All 18 of us were strumming the same chords on acoustic guitars. There was no musical variety from song to song. I tried fingerpicking and even playing chord inversions high on the neck for variety, but the volume of the other guitars made it hard for me to hear myself. I felt my playing was unnecessary to the group and stopped playing after about an hour. 

Laster, I suggested to the group leader that I bring an electric bass and small practice amp for the next meetup. This would give the group a fuller sound and different bass lines would vary the song styles more.

She looked at me with shock and disbelief as if to say, "What!!! all electric instruments are forbidden!!" I tried to reassure her that there is electric bass and a lot of folk music. Her response was staunchly against it. I offered to let her work the volume control on the amp if she questioned my ability to balance with the rest of the group. She still didn't budge. She did offer to let me play her grandfathers fiddle. (no telling how badly in shape this is in). but I knew that it would be unplayable an no fun at all. She informed me that only acoustic folk instruments would be allowed to participate. PERIOD!

Now, as a band leader for too many years than I care to remember, I know that the director is the one in charge. If I meant what I said to my band students all these years about how they should respect and follow the director's wishes, I should do the same.

I wish you could have seen the look on her face when I told her that next time I would be bringing my banjo!

Banjo?????? A banjo is way too loud for this group and you'll drown out every guitar in the place! Is there any way to play a banjo softly? 

Not really.....

(I have used a felt autoharp pick on occasion when I played "Mame" and "Hello Dolly" for a local community theatre group and it did help). Finger picking without fingerpicks is another option.

She tried everything in her power to dissuade me from bringing my banjo but still remained firm on denying my electric bass to participate.

(The truth is that my could play a lot softer on my electric bass than I can on my banjo)

The next meetup folk sing is in three weeks and I will try to post what happens.

The lesson for her on this post is post is:

Don't make a rule that you aren't willing to follow.

I will give you a hint and let you know that I have every intention of playing my banjo with a balanced volume as a courtesy to the other members. The old rule still applies:

If you can't hear the other musicians, you are to loud.

Don't forger to check out the musicteachers911 podcast available on the itunes store. It's free!

Larry Marra

Monday, March 16, 2009

wait to be asked

I was just hired to play piano with an eight piece house band for a local Christian radio station's live remote at a shopping center. The special guest was a female Christian guitarist/folksinger. During the sound check, she started playing one of her songs that had very simple chord changes. 
The bass player is very accomplished and started adding a very tasty bass line to her song. After a while, I started adding a light string descant as well. She stopped and told us in no uncertain terms to stop and never to play along with her. Period. She was absolutely right! We should have not played a single note unless asked. She had two parts in the show where she played her songs while I sat and listened. Afterwards, I apologized to her for playing along without being asked. It did hurt a little to be asked not to play as I felt it added to her song. The point being that it was HER song and she has total control of what instruments should be used. I had to focus on the fact that this was a job and I should play only when I am asked and leave my feelings in the car. After 40 years, I am still learning from every gig.

Don't forget that I have a music podcast on iTunes called musicteachers911. Feel free to search the iTunes store and subscribe. It's free!

Larry Marra


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Don't ignore your audience!

Last night I was invited to attend a HS band concert and saw things that bothered me. I won't mention the school name, but hope that my written observations might help to make your next event better.

1. For God's sake, dress up! If you want your students to treat your concerts like a big deal, don't direct in your work clothes! Wear a dark suit or nice evening dress if you are female.

2. After a song is over, turn around and acknowledge the crowds applause! Do not ignore them, or seem impatient to get on with the next song as if you want the concert over as soon as possible. These parents want an opportunity to support their children. Let them.

3. If you have a soloist, treat them like a VIP. I heard a marimba soloist. He had practiced hard and deserved a little special treatment. He should not have had to wheel out his own marimba or roll it back behind the curtain when he was done. He should have just taken a bow and let a few underclassmen do this for him. Let your stars shine!

4. Take as long as you need to to tune the band. Don't be in such a hurry to start on time that the entire concert sounds bad.

5. Take a moment to tune between songs if your need to. Last night the second song sounded worse than the first because the horns had warmed and expanded during the first song and were terribly flat on the second one.

6. Don't start conducting until the hall is quiet. You have a lot of parents in the audience that came to hear their child, not a baby crying or cell conversation. Allowing a rude person to disrupt everyones enjoyment is allowing them to be in charge of the concert, not you.

7. If a song has a soloist, or a select group or section is highlighted, motion them to stand during the applause to accept a little extra gratitude for their effort.

8. Don't give your honest assessment of the concert to the director unless they specifically ask for it. Several of the other music teachers I was with encouraged me to "kindly instruct" the director after the concert on a few of the aforementioned items. I made it clear that my role this evening was an audience member and nothing else. If I was asked by the director to comment on the evening (which I wasn't), I would have started positive and sugar-coated every observation so as to uplift and encourage.

9. Videotape every performance for later critical review. I am guess that some of the items here will be made evident and will help to improve the next event

If you want to know more about successful teaching, be sure to listen to the musicteachers911 podcast available on iTunes, log on to or spend some time searching Chad Criswell's excellent teaching site,

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"The Times They are a Changing"

 Monday, I went to Milton-Union Schools in Southwest Ohio to give a presentation for Macmillan Publishing on their elementary music textbook series, "Spotlight on Music". This was the first time that I had an opportunity to use a smart-board. 

I quickly surmised that it  is basically a touch-screen monitor. The jack to plug into my Macbook is the new "female type, so an adapter for the older projectors was not needed.

Luckily, my Mac is automatically configured to handle this. The attachment cord comes included with all Macbook Pros. This is very important, listen up:

Remember to plug in the cable to the smart-board into your computer BEFORE you boot up your PC. I had to learn that one the hard way. 

I had used the system preferences and configured the smart-board to run in in parallel mode. This means that the smart-board was a continuation of the right side of my laptop monitor. I had to drag the open windows to the left until they were not visible on my laptop monitor. I kept scrolling the window to the left and they eventually showed up on the smart-board. cool!

I chose to used my touchpad on the Mac and remain seated to run the powerpoint presentation. Only occasionally, did I get up and drag my finger against the screen of the smart=board to control the mouse. 

The Final Word..........

I love smart-boards! 

I wish I had one when I was teaching. I remember entire classes scrunched around the 14 inch monitor on the only PC in the room to watch computer demonstrations about music technology. Dylan said it best, "The Times They are a Changing".
I, for one, think that they are changing for the better. 

Friday, February 13, 2009

Follow the Leader

Wednesday I was asked to play the bass with a swing band for a Valentine's Day Party. I usually am the pianist for this bunch, but the bass player is in Florida for the Winter. I have played the drums with them on occasion, as pianists are easier to get that good drummers. Wel,, I guess the same it true of bass players. I walked into the club carrying my bass to the confused looks of the other band-mates. They thought that I was carrying the bass for someone else, as they had no clue that I could play. 
The gig went off great except for one song which was a total train-wreck because of me.
(Yes, after all these years, I am still learning the hard way)

Here is what happened.......

The band is very established and has over 1200 charts in their books. It is such a pain tolisten to the band leader to  find and get out the songs before we play. (Here's where I got lazy)......

I had the bright idea of just looking over  the pianist shoulder instead of getting out the bass parts when the leader called them. Well, we had just finished playing a tune and I noticed song 217 on the piano rack. Being the nice guy I am, I told the drummer to get out song 317. The only problem was that the next song to play was 1226! The pianist hadn't put his songs in the right order. Because of this, the piano, bass, and (because of me) drummer started off playing the wrong song!

My ear cam name that mistake in one note, so I scrambled over to look at the bandleader's rack and see what the horns were playing. I ran back to the piano and drummer and shouted 1226! 1226!

About 20 measures into the song, we were all sounding like a band again.

Lesson learned?

Get the tunes out when the bandleader calls them, and then double check by glancing at the bandleader's rack just before the count-off. 

In other words, follow the leader.

Yours musically,

Larry Marra of

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Female to Female

First, I would like to thank Chad Chriswell,  from for making musicteachers911 a featured blog on his site. is a fantastic resource for music educators and I highly suggest that anyone affiliated with music check it out.

On Monday Jan, 26, I gave a presentation about Macmillan Publishing's  Spotlight on Music, elementary music textbook series, to the fine arts staff of Tipp City Schools. 

Prior to the event, I spoke with the Macmillan Ohio Sales Rep, Larry Bohannon, and asked what he needed me to do. He said to present a general overview using a Microsoft PowerPoint slideshow. He suggested that I plug my Macbook Pro into his multi-media projector via the 15 pin jack. I looked and saw that my Mac indeed had a 15 pin jack. Then, a post music-tech sick feeling deep in my soul got my attention. 

I called him back and asked if he would bring the projector by to "road test" it and insure that all would go smoothly. Sure enough, his projector had a 15 prong female jack just like the 15 prong female jack on my Mac. Both the projector and PC had 15 holes but no pins for the other unit! A quick trip to Staples and $12 later we were in business. The presentation went off without a hitch.

The lesson here is to check all hardware in plenty of time to iron out any glitches prior to an event. This goes for music performance equipment as well. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

UD Guest Lecture

Yesterday, I was asked to give a lecture to the University of Dayton Music Education students. The topic was to be "classroom management". To prepare for this, I looked at a file I created that contained all the "classroom tips" for the musicteachers911 podcast. There I was happy to find over a hundred tips. I just printed out this list. As long as I talked at least 30 seconds per tip, I would be just fine. As it turned out, I expounded on a few key points and completely skipped over others. Attending the class with the students, was Dr. heather McLaughlin, an ethnomusicologist from Canada. She is currently teaching at a college in New York, but was in Dayton  interviewing for a staff position at UD. Several times during my presentation, she raised her hand in interjected wonderful insights that gave a new perspective to the points I was making. I was very glad that she chose to attend. I spoke with her briefly after the session and invited her to contact me later about being a guest on the musicteachers911 podcast soon. 

As I was speaking, I got in touch with my passion for teaching again. The timing for this event couldn't have been better, as I was to leave UD and travel directly to Tipp City. There I was to give a overview presentation for Macmillan Publishing to their music staff. Getting up in front of a class again was just the spark I needed to pump some fresh energy into my textbook presentation. More on Tipp City next post. As it is, I need to get busy and get the next podcast episode ready for iTunes.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Music Music Music!

Last Saturday, I was asked to play the bass with a nine piece jazz band for a wedding reception.
Let me preface this post by saying that I usually play the piano with them. The bass player is vacationing in Florida. It was easier for the leader to find a sub for me on piano than a sub for bass. I must say that the pianist that he got to replace me did a marvelous job at covering the part. He had a different style of playing than  me.

I thought it was refreshing that I finally found another pianist that knew to stay away from the lower keys when playing with a bass.

 The event lasted four hours. Here is where I would like to interject that: whenever I booked a gig that lasted over three hours, I would stipulate that the band would be fed. Since I was not the band leader for this, I packed two ripe apples in my bass case and an energy bar in my shirt pocket for the last hour. The band leader offered to pick me up and transport me to the gig provided that I help him set up for the entire band. since the band leader is a close friend of mine, I agreed.

The event was to be held in an abandoned car dealership and was quite lovely. I was introduced to the mother of the groom who informed me that the buffet was indeed open to the band. Crab-cakes and shrimp appetizers won out over the apples hands-down.

The leader asked if I would set up on the right of the drummer with the pianist on the left side. Since I pack a 30 foot cord for the bass, it made sense that the amp be positioned there, but I walk over and looked off the pianists music.  One pet peeve I have is that the piano music is often 10 to 14 pages long per song. This is far too much for the music stands to hold. I decided not to use the bass book at all and totally look off the piano parts. I know it was wrong, but I had to secretly laugh at the horrible time the pianist was having finding and negotiating the sheet music from the book and the music rack. I was loving not having to touch a single page of it.

The regular vocalist couldn't make it and sent a female vocalist in his place. The band leader had not auditioned her and took the vocalist word that she would be fine. She wasn't. 

Don't get me wrong. Her voice is lovely and she can sing wonderfully. The huge problem is that she is a gospel singer and hadn't hear of any of the songs we were singing as she doesn't ever listen to secular music. 


I found myself singing the vocal lines to her moments before the leader was counting off the song. 

Never use anyone for a performance that you haven't investigated thoroughly!

In spite of this, the crowd was happy and the gig was a success.

When the bass player comes back, I dread the thought of wrestling the piano charts again. I am just going to have to suck it up for the good of the entire ensemble.