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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Building a setlist is a crucial part of a show

By Ted Slowik

A setlist is critical to a show. I mean, it's the plot at the beginning of Martin Scorsese's 2008 Rolling Stones live concert documentary "Shine a Light," where Marty in the booth doesn't get the setlist until Keith tears into the opening riff of the opener "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

Sure, you play plenty of jams and impromptu sessions where there is no setlist. I've performed songs live with other musicians I've never played before. But if you have a show and weeks to prepare for it, here's a few reasons why a setlist is so important.

No. 1, it's better to do a few things well than a lot of things so-so. If you're like me you know hundreds of songs. At most I'll play three hours in a night. At five minutes a song that's 36 songs. It's best to try to nail those down, practice them and do them well. Variety's the spice of life and if you have time you can mix in other tunes for different shows. But find your core material and stick to it.

Second, if other musicians are going to perform with you they'll appreciate charts and recordings of the set so they can prepare. Focusing on what you do well means making decisions in advance so there's a game plan.

Third, planning a set allows you to inject audio variety to keep the listeners engaged. In the attached example, a setlist for a local New Year's Eve show I'm doing Tuesday night, no two songs in a row are in the same key. I've made myself notes as helpful reminders, so I can stay relaxed and focus on playing, singing and juggling all those other variables like sound, tone, voice quality, remembering lyrics, crowd reaction, etc.

Now, I believe while a setlist is crucial it's important to respond to an audience and remain flexible. Like when the Blues Brothers played Bob's Country Bunker. Dwight Eisenhower said "plans are useless but planning is essential." A couple weeks ago I played in a bar on a Saturday night, and I figured they'd want to hear honky tonk rock and roll. The rock wasn't going over well, and it wasn't until the second set that I realized the songs the crowd responded well to were slower ballads. They wanted to have conversations with each other while I was playing, and the uptempo stuff was too loud.

Granted, that's more of a sound thing than material choices, but the point is a quarterback's got to be able to call an audible. Make your setlist but don't get hung up on it. Live in the moment, and perform your songs with the confidence that comes from good preparation.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Taking lessons at any age or level will help you improve

By Ted Slowik

I'm 48 years old, and last week I started taking guitar lessons.

Ted and Paul, 1982
I remember I did take a few guitar lessons once before, in 1980, when I was 15. Our parents made us all take piano lessons, and I took violin lessons as well. But I never practiced. Ever. I may not have even been 10 years old, but I already didn't like people telling me what to do. I wanted to go outside and play, not sit and plunk some stupid instrument. If only I'd practiced my scales as a kid, there's no telling what would have happened.

After I bought my first guitar at a garage sale and borrowed a library book on how to play it, I'd heard the music teacher from grade school gave lessons at her house. She lived about 2 miles away. I walked to her house. Back then I was embarrassed to be seen carrying a guitar, so I stuck to the side streets. I didn't yet get the whole "chicks dig guys with guitars" thing.

To get from our house in Countryside to her house in Western Springs I had to cross busy 55th Street. One winter Saturday, as I was hurrying across the four lanes with my guitar in its case, a brown van slowed down, then stopped. A long-haired dude popped open the passenger door and asked if I wanted a ride.

Sure, John Wayne Gacy had just been sentenced to death for raping and killing boys but I did what any kid freezing his nuts off would do in that situation. I hopped in the windowless van with the stranger.

Well, nothing bad happened. He said he was a roadie for Styx and a picker himself. He turned out to be a nice guy and drove me all the way to my teacher's house. I only took lessons for few months, and that was almost 34 years ago.

Mostly, I learned to play songs by ear. As a bassist, I didn't have to play solos, my rhythm was good, and if I hit a bad note more than once usually Rich Westrick the keyboardist or someone else with more musical knowledge would correct me during rehearsals.

The Internet makes it a lot easier today to learn music. In a flash you can find the lyrics and chords and charts to just about any song. You can watch free instructional videos on YouTube on how to play just about anything. I've been using those tools, too, believe me, but something happened recently that made me realize I needed help from a live human being.

I was at the Wednesday acoustic open mic hosted by John Condron at Tribes Alehouse Mokena when Bridget Cavenaugh showed up for the first time in a while. She was playing guitar and singing beautifully while Pat Otto played mandolin. When Pat took a solo, you could feel the energy increase in the room. It was something palpable, yet magical, to feel. I've heard Pat say after playing a particularly beautiful but difficult piece that he'd played it 1,000 times before.

Teacher shows me a new way to play F, a very important chord.
Nowadays, I love to practice. Most days I practice for two hours, sometimes more on weekends. I've been doing this regularly for more than two years. Still, I felt my abilities were beginning to plateau. I'm very happy with the progress, especially vocally, and with rhythm playing, and tone quality, and overall confidence, which makes me more relaxed when I play, which makes me sound better.

But it is music, after all, and wouldn't it be nice to play guitar solos and other musical interludes where the sounds I made didn't sound like cats fighting? Yes, I've been awful. But realizing you need help is the first step toward improvement.

I know many exceptional teachers of stringed instruments--Pat Otto, Bill Ryan, Tom Maslowski, to name just three. Parents, I encourage you all to make your kids study an instrument. It will help them develop their mathematics and problem-solving skills. I chose a teacher who is I think the right fit for my needs at this time. Someone with an excellent reputation for teaching, particularly in the blues and rock styles, who is also a working guitarist in a band, an accomplished songwriter and singer, and to top it all off a really nice guy, too. His son is a student at North Central College, where I work, and studied abroad in Iceland to learn about folklore. (Storytelling must run in the family.)

Teacher charges a very reasonable rate. And what, I ask, could I possibly spend money on at my age that would bring me more joy than guitar lessons? Helping less fortunate others, I suppose, but nothing for me, personally. Teacher's name is Kev Wright. You may know him for his work with the Righteous Hillbillies. He does music full-time, he's passionate and animated but a great listener, too, and he has the patience and explaining skills needed to be a good teacher.

We've only had a couple lessons so far but I can tell this is really going to help my game, as it were. Just learning the terminology of music, speaking the language that musicians speak, is going to improve communication when making music with others, not to mention how my own performance will improve.

Kev's a great teacher and I can't wait to apply the skills, techniques and theory he's teaching me.

Photo of Kev from a David Masciotra article in Chicago Now, 2010

Friday, December 13, 2013

Here's how I use Twitter as a musician

By Ted Slowik

Out here on the “long tail” of the music world, I’m a nobody among millions of other nobodies. I’m OK with that, because I get satisfaction from making music for family, friends and local fans.

But I do find it fun to connect with musicians, recording artists, songwriters, booking agents, producers, publicists and others all over the world who share a passion for music. Twitter’s a great way for musicians to connect with people, and here’s how and why.

I have three main goals with Twitter: to engage with like-minded artists, to support others and to build my following.

Engagement is most important. A few months ago I was playing a solo gig at a bar miles from home. I didn’t know a soul. No other musicians or friends were there. In between sets I Tweeted that it was the loneliest gig I’d ever played. A stranger Tweeted back words of encouragement, and that was all I needed to get through the gig.

I have about 1,200 followers on Twitter at the moment, but only 20 or so that I really care about. People I actually talk to, and who reply. Actual human beings! Not those automated replies, like, “Thanks for following! Please 'Like' my page on Facebook too!” Gag.

If someone follows me, I follow back, unless they’re obviously a spam robot. That’s how I show support for other artists—by following them. I don’t care that my following-to-followers ratio is about even. I know I’m not a celebrity who follows a handful of people and has tons of followers. I’m a commoner. I respond to personal requests, not automated replies. I'll post links to YouTube videos and SoundCloud tracks for others I can actually vouch for. Who knows how many of my followers will ever click on the links I share? But you know what? The artists I Tweet about appreciate it. If you show a kindness, karma will repay that.

I’m careful about who I follow on Twitter. I build my Twitter following by following hand-picked others, not just anyone. I avoid like the plague those bots whose sole purpose is just to follow back or bombard you with spam posts. I’m only interested in actual artists.

And not just any artists. If their Twitter feed is populated only with automated posts from their Facebook feed, I’m not following them. I link Facebook and Twitter too, but I supplement those with a majority of posts directly to the Twitter audience. And not every post has a link to a song or video. Sorry, but it’s often a drag waiting for links to another channel to load. I would love to “Like” you on Facebook next time I’m at a desktop, but on my mobile device the whole point is speed and convenience.

I follow artists who talk about their work. Of course that means reading posts about gigs they’re playing, because they want to get the word out about them. But I especially like posts that offer insight and perspective into how they work. I'm interested in the process. New gear is interesting, as is work in the studio, new songs, collaborations with other musicians, reviews and mentions.

And I only follow artists who are on Twitter regularly. If you haven’t posted in three days, or maybe only post once a week on average, sorry but I’m not interested. Here’s another turnoff, and it’s going to sound selfish, but if you’ve hit that 2000 following threshold and you only have a few hundred followers, I’m not following you. You’ve got to do the work and prune your list of people you’re following. I’m following you partly because I hope you’ll follow me back. If you haven’t followed me back after a few days, sorry, but I’m going to unfollow you.

I find other musicians to follow by perusing the followers of people following me. I’m looking for others who not only share my interest in music but who exhibit similar behavior in how they use Twitter. I'm selective.

Here’s the thing, though: If I know you’re an actual human being, and you seem cool and interesting based on your bio description and profile pic and how you respond to my following you, I might go the extra mile. I might visit your YouTube channel, click on some videos to get you some views, or check out your Bandcamp, SoundCloud and ReverbNation pages and tell others about your songs.

Maybe I’ll “Like” your fan page on Facebook. Maybe, if you seem really interesting, I’ll Google you. And if you turn out to be legit and someone worth knowing, I might ask to be friends with the actual you on Facebook or try to connect with you on LinkedIn. I would just like to establish that connection because hey, you never know. I might need a booking agent in Alberta, Canada sometime and I could direct message you.

Know this: I’m not just trying to help myself by slowly building my own following and establishing connections that might one day prove beneficial. I’m genuinely trying to support other like-minded artists in my own small way.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Here's the lowdown on how you can get "Comfort Zone"

By Ted Slowik

Cheers all! It’s an exciting time because the solo debut studio recording “Comfort Zone” is available now in some formats and will soon be available in others! Here’s how you can get it:
  • If you’d like a physical copy of the CD, and you live in Joliet or Naperville or places in between, I’ll sell you one for $5 and deliver it to you at no extra charge! Simply send me a note at or a direct, private message on Facebook or Twitter and we’ll work out the details. Copies will be available at the Jan. 4 CD release show at Chicago Street Pub in Joliet!
  • Outside of Joliet/Naperville, you may order physical copies of the CD soon through Search for “Ted Slowik.” No results yet, but it’ll be available soon, they assure me. Price had to be set at $7.99 to cover mailing costs. 
  • On Dec. 19 you can download MP3 files of the six tracks from “Comfort Zone” for 99 cents each through, iTunes, Google Play, CDBaby and other sites. 
  • For now, you can stream (listen to for free but not download) “Hinsdale” from the new release on my SoundCloud and ReverbNation pages. Other tracks will be uploaded soon for your listening pleasure!
  • If you are my mother, a brother or sister, niece or nephew—I have mailed or delivered copies of the CD to you or your parents as of today. Sorry, cousins, close friends and everyone else—I had to draw the line somewhere. Thanks for understanding.
  • Tune into to anywhere in the world (or 88.1 FM in the LaGrange area) from 8 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17 to hear the songs from "Comfort Zone" and stories about them during a very special WLTL Alumni Week show hosted by my good friend Terry Kinn '82! 
Thanks everyone for all your support and encouragement! Remember to visit, and tell your friends!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Enjoying Thanksgiving week with family and many musical friends

Pat Otto and Bridget Cavanaugh
By Ted Slowik

Thanksgiving is a special week. The Slowiks got together Thursday at Mom's house, as we've done since longer than I can remember. Slowiks are a big, fun family and there's nothing more important than family.

Monday was my five-year work anniversary as director of PR and media relations at North Central College. Sometimes I miss all the great people I worked with in newspapers over the years, and five years has gone by quickly. No point in looking back though.

Black Wednesday was the two-year anniversary of when I discovered open mic at Tribes Alehouse Mokena, hosted by John Condron. The place was packed, and the night started with a great set by Jake Cullen on upright bass, Bridget Cavenaugh on guitar and vocals and Pat Otto on mandolin and vocals.

Watching and listening to them restored my understanding of music. An elusive form of grace and energy manifested itself during their performance, something special that's hard to pinpoint. Something about the way Pat solos--you can feel it in a room. I'm very grateful to Pat for playing mandolin on two songs on the new record, including the very meaningful family song. It was a pleasure meeting Jake and seeing Bridget for the first time in a while.

Kev Wright, John Narcissi and Brent James. Photo: Michelle Gadeikis
Also Wednesday the Righteous Hillbillies played Chicago Street Pub in Joliet. It was great seeing Jodi Wartenberg and Greg Vershay, who introduced me to their writer friend David Masciotra. Guitarist Kev Wright had one of his students, John Narcissi, join the band onstage. Brent James, who did the sleeve design for the "Comfort Zone" CD, is quite the frontman--a real rocker who seems to channel Jim Morrison at times. Johnny Gadeikis is a great bassist and Barret Harvey is a fantastic drummer.

The Hillbillies have had a great year, opening for Bad Company, Black Oak Arkansas, David Allan Coe, Bret Michaels, the Marshall Tucker Band, Vince Neil and others. They're a tight band, their songs are great and their show is a kick ass fun time!

Lonnie Brooks, Billy Branch and Ronnie Baker Brooks
The Hillbillies would have been the best band I saw this week had I not gone with brother Frank, sister Liz and her husband Steve to FitzGerald's in Berwyn Saturday night to hear Ronnie Baker Brooks. Ronnie's a very talented blues guitarist, a gifted vocalist and great blues writer and performer. He had a three-piece horn section and very animated keyboardist in addition to a bassist and drummer. His brother, Wayne Baker Brooks, is also a very talented blues artist.
They're the sons of legendary Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks, who turns 80 next month. He's moving slowly these days but it's great to see him getting around. Lonnie came out and played a set with Ronnie, and the great Chicago blues harp player Billy Branch sat in with them. Blues legend Otis Clay, soul producer Tom Tom Washington and WXRT "Blues Breakers" host Tom Marker were all in the house, and the night had a special vibe. Nothing like hearing "the real deal" great blues in Chicago!

So, another eventful week. The CD is in production and will be available in less than two weeks! Rehearsals start this week with friends helping out at the big CD release show Jan. 4 at Chicago Street Pub. Hope to see you at the show!