Frank Perri is a keyboardist and arranger with a range of live performance, recording and arranging credits which reads like a who’s who of ‘been there and done it!’ If we mention that Frank has arranged for and led the Duke Ellington Orchestra, has guest conducted the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, is musical director of ‘Break The Floor Productions’, one of the world’s preeminent dance entertainment companies, AND has appeared in the US TV show “Pan Am” on ABC Television, you can see we’re not exaggerating.
Frank’s father still asks, “When is he giving up this music garbage and getting a real job?”
So there I was, sitting behind a Prophet 5 in a recording session getting ready to lay a track. It had just been a regular session, nothing out of the ordinary. Nice pop tune, good beat, straight ahead 4/4. No nasty surprises like a bar of 6/8 hidden somewhere or an out of place chord with an E sharp waiting to jump out and slap my fingers. No, this one couldn’t be any easier. Or so, I thought.
I sat there, not really thinking of anything to be honest. I hadn’t really heard the track yet and didn’t want to start giving myself preconceived notions about what I was going to play. I just sat there in silence listening to the endless hum of the air conditioning unit with its endless drone and icy breeze that was making me regret wearing a short sleeve t-shirt. You see, the Prophet 5 is by no means mine because as any musician will tell you we rarely get to own the cool instruments. No, we tend to own the practical ones as they’re more reliable. Practical and reliable isn’t as exciting as a Prophet 5 but it does mean I’ll get paid. For some reason as I get older I find the prospect of being able to pay my bills much more exciting, but I digress.
This Prophet belonged to the studio and was a particularly unruly beast. Any time the temperature in the studio rose above freezing, this Prophet would voice its displeasure by emulating some kind of Baroque tuning, so the AC had to be constantly on to keep the Prophet playing by the rules.
Finally the track started, distracting me from the air conditioner’s icy jabs at my right bicep and snapping my ears to attention. After the track was done, I said to the producer, “I think I have something. Let’s run it again but hit record and let me lay something.” As the track replayed, I came up with a motif and shaped it more or less to the grunts and approvals of the producer. Finally I had something that the producer was happy with that sort of resembled a whole note, followed by a half note and then a little melodic figure consisting of four 8th notes. He told me, “Great! Let’s lay that over the choruses. I’m recording now.”
I listened to the verse pass by and the chorus came up. I played my little motif and all of a sudden the recording stopped. “That was perfect except for the four 8th notes. Something about that wasn’t sitting in the pocket.” I quickly apologized and asked him to record again. The chorus came again and then silence. “No, there’s still something not right with your timing at that part.”
“Your timing. Something about the 8th notes doesn’t feel right to me. Do you need the drums louder?” he said matter-of-factly to me.
“There’s something about the timing I don’t like, let’s do it again with the drums louder.” He said as he restarted the recording. I listened to the verse pass by and started playing on the chorus and again he stopped me. “Something’s not right.” I asked him to play it back as I got that familiar pit in my stomach. We got to the chorus and he said, “Right there, can you hear it?” as the 8th notes passed by. The pit got deeper. “No, actually I don’t. What are you hearing?” I said to him. I started to regret being clever and wished I had just come up with another half note instead of the four 8th notes.
“The pocket,” he mumbled, “I think you’re not feeling the pocket of this particular song because you’re playing the notes right but they just don’t feel right.” Uh-oh. I was in trouble now because I couldn’t particularly hear, or feel for that matter, what the problem was. The pit had slowly turned into a whirlpool and was taking my lunch for a ride in my upper intestine. One of the most frightening things for any musician is not being able to hear a problem because if you can’t hear it, you can’t fix it.
I’m sure in retrospect the problem was nowhere near as dire as it felt, nevertheless my mind was reeling with various hypothesis trying to explain why I couldn’t hear the problem. It had to be the endless air conditioning. It had to be that I was sitting and not standing, my preferred way to lay a track. It had to be that Mercury was in retrograde! That was it! It had to be something that was beyond my control. This was it, what I had always feared. Most sessions seem to go smoothly but you know there has to be that one bad one, the one that you talk about when you gather with other musicians and tell war stories. This was it! This was going to become a war story! My stomach sank even more. Things were going to get worse before they got better. History demanded it.
The producer turned to me ready to do another take but instead a slight flash of worry crossed his brow when he looked at me and said, “OK, we’re gonna take a break so I can smoke. I can see it on your face. You just psyched yourself out, didn’t you? Take a breather. I want to get this in one take and not punch it if possible.” We both went out for some air. He needed to infuse his blood with nicotine and I needed to get control of the epinephrine that was flooding my system mercilessly.
“I always get such a kick out of this.” The producer said to me between drags. “It’s always the serious cats that do this. They’re always used to being able to play all this crazy stuff but sometimes something so simple trips them up and they unravel because they can’t accept the fact that something so simple is giving them such a problem.” I appreciated the sympathy, and the second-hand smoke to a degree which seemed to have a somewhat calming effect on me.
My mind started to wander and I started to see a pattern. It always seems that for most musicians I know, as we rise up the ladder both in our careers and our ability, the fear and doubt seem to rise almost in direct proportion as if some cruel joke.
I had thought back to an incident a piano lesson that had occurred many years before. I was entering my lesson as the student before me was leaving. He vaguely looked like a well known session musician. As I sat at the piano I asked my teacher, “Hey that looked like Mr. X.” My teacher replied, “That certainly was. He has the lesson before you.” I was impressed that he still took lessons.
“How’s he doing?” I inquired, trying to stall my teacher from asking me to run a diminished scale. “Not good. He’s got very bad ulcers.” Now I was interested. “Bad diet?” I asked. “No, work related.” My teacher told me. That kind of surprised me. Mr. X had played on thousands of recordings over the past 30 years. He was what I inspired to be, the one who swoops into a session, completely in control with a perfect first take of what the song needed but didn’t know it needed until he played it.
Now I was more curious and not really worried about the scales anymore. I couldn’t imagine what someone who was an established first call session musician for so long had to be nervous about. My teacher told me, “More or less he said that for the past 30 years, after every session he plays on, he swears it’s the last time he’s ever going to be called again.” My God, were none of us immune?!
It really seems to be the case with musicians. The very best are also the most insecure and conversely it’s always the ones who have no idea how much practice they need that are always the most fearless. It’s almost as if that by learning more, you get a much bigger grasp of what you don’t know. It’s the age-old conundrum. Ignorance is truly bliss. And judging by the amount of risks I took early in my career compared to now this more than proves it.
When I was 15 I had written to Madonna telling her to hire me because I was the “greatest keyboard player in the world” and that she needed me on her tour. Of course I never heard a response from Madonna, and thankfully she never took me up on my offer because my career might have ended right there. But the fact remains that I would never dream of going after a gig in such a manner now. Should I be fearless or is it that now I know what can go wrong, so I am afraid?
A friend told me once that he thought that kids love roller coasters so much because they haven’t learned yet that they can die. An interesting thing to think about because after all what really is fear? It’s just a feeling; fear can’t kill you. You feel afraid in the same way that you feel hungry yet hunger hasn’t had such a compelling direction on my career.
Maybe it’s time to try something different. Maybe it’s time to not doubt myself. Maybe it’s time to take risks. Maybe it’s time to write Madonna another letter.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of the Dunning-Kruger effect which states that there are two biases that people suffer from. One bias being that the unskilled are under the illusion of being better than they are, but more importantly other bias is that the skilled are under the illusion that everyone else knows as much as they do. That’s the one that makes a musician freeze in a performance when they make a mistake thinking that every audience member heard the mistake loud and clear when in reality most people aren’t sitting in the audience with a copy of the score following your every note. Maybe it’s time to thumb my nose at Dunning-Kruger and take the mistakes in stride. To realize that sometimes I won’t feel the pocket of a particular song, and it’s OK.
As for the rest of the session? We ended up punching the four 8th notes. Well, you can’t win them all. At least I have a nice war story for the next hang.
-Frank Perri, June 2012.