~Ever been to a really kick-ass concert?~

Whether you walk into an underground indie rock club where the stage is six inches off of the ground and you sit so close that you can smell the day old ramen noodles that the guitar player ate before the show or you queue in front of a stadium for hours waiting to spring forward for dear life into the general admission seats that are at best twenty feet from the stage, attending a live music event can be a transcendent life experience.

The lights, the sound, the energy of the crowd, and the overpriced drinks all play into how you fall in love with the adventure of a concert.

It’s a bit difference for a performer.

Sure, performers are completely aware of the generalities of the aforementioned concert qualities, but in a considerably more intimate way.

~I’ve played myriad awkward, boring, and at times…downright bad shows~

*For now I’ll completely disregard the shows where I have been unprepared, sung wrong words, played out of tune, or any number of other factors where I was the cause of a bad performance. (More on this at a later date.)

During a live concert there are any number of things that can go wrong from a performer’s perspective.

If you don’t want to read the specifics of what can ruin a show for a stage performer, skip to the bottom where I detail my worst show to date.

Bad Lighting

Lighting is a fairly innocuous issue to have when performing and most complaints can be accepted an forgotten. If I’m playing a moody love song and the lighting designer puts on yellows, reds, and oranges, sure that doesn’t set the mood like blues and violets may, but ultimately they don’t affect a performance.

What does affect a performance is when a lighting designer, on his first day on the job, turns on a 180 bpm strobe light in the middle of one of these melodramatic love songs.

This happened during a Writers Round I played in Nashville, TN in January 2018.

But what’s even worse than this nincompoop turning on a dance club’s strobe light during a round is that he had ~absolutely no idea~ how to turn it back off. So for the remaining 20 minutes of our one hour performance, we played with a strobe light that I can only assume was a portal of light directly from the Sun because I left the venue seeing little white spots.

All of that being said though, it ultimately didn’t affect our overall ability to perform regardless of how bright and distracting it may have been.

Bad Sound Design

Sound design is a considerably larger issue. Here’s the two general categories of bad sound design.

A) House Mix: This is what the audience is hearing. Depending on the music, any number of issues can arrise here. From a keyboard being mixed so loudly that it overpowers the lead vocalist, a guitar being so quiet that it’s inaudible unless you’re directly in front of its speaker cabinet, or a DJ’s subwoofer not even being turned on such that no one can even hear the beat of the song, a house mix can completely make or break a concert for an audience.

B) Stage Monitor Mix: The stage monitors (whether they are loudspeakers or in-ear systems) are what feed a performer their own instruments as well as the instruments of the others on stage. Loud speaker monitor systems are typically left completely in the hands of the sound designer or stage manager.

More often than not, monitors are hastily mixed to get a show going as fast as possible; dead silence in a rock club is a surefire way to kill the vibe of a room.

Performing with a bad monitor mix can feel like a death sentence for the life of a show. If I can’t hear my guitar over the sound of the drums and bass, it makes it immensely more difficult to follow closely along with the other performers – and playing out of time makes ~everyone~ what they’re hearing.

Aside from affecting one’s ability to perform well, a monitor mix can cause a string of other issues. If a stage monitor is too loud it can cause ear-splitting microphone feedback and/or instrument hum.

If you’ve ever been to a concert that has experienced bad feedback, it immediately results in the audience plugging their ears, squinting their eyes, and having a visceral reaction of wanting to make the noise stop at all costs – even if it means making the performers stop playing.

Band Members & The Hired Gun

In many cases when someone is in a band they’re playing with their closest friends. But in a city like Nashville, Tennessee, being a hired gun is common practice.

A solo artist lands a gig at a nice venue and they need to hire a full band to play with them. Now, with plenty of time and preparation, a solo artist can audition and thoroughly vet the musicians they hire to perform with them and hopefully each of them will give 100% towards rehearsals leading up to, and including the final performance for which they were hired.

However, as unfortunate as it may be, it’s also common for a musician to drop out last minute and consequently leaves this solo artist without a drummer for their big gig that’s happening in 12 hours.

When this happens, the first call to action is frantically calling and texting all of their friends to see if they know of a drummer who is not only capable of learning a whole setlist in a day, but is also available to perform on such short notice.

Being unable to find someone qualified can be difficult and can ultimately result in someone who is only there to make some quick cash. They are not invested in your performance, your brand, or most importantly…your fans.

Even having one temporary member in a four-piece rock band can totally derail a performance.

This isn’t to say that all musicians-for-hire are like this, and to be real, most are not. But in such a prolific city as Nashville, there are undoubtedly people who are only out there to give a small percentage of their time and effort to help out, and if you happen to hire one of the bad eggs, your show is put in jeopardy.

The Crowd That Does Not Care

All performers have experienced this the crowd that doesn’t give two shits who you are and would rather you stopped playing so they could enjoy their evening in peace and quiet.

Hecklers, though more common in standup comedy, still manage to find their way into live music events.

“You suck! Get off of the stage!”

Usually drunk and angry about something else, these audience members have the power to take you out of a proper performance mindset. And even more unfortunately, if they’re not causing actual problems and are still buying drinks at the bar, they’re not going to get kicked out.

“Freebird!”

This heckler, can mean well, but yelling Freebird at a concert is such an overused cliché at this point. It’s not funny. This ironic attempt to connect with the performer goes nowhere – what are we supposed to do…cut out three of our songs that are used to promote our new album to play an 11 minute song that came out 45+ years ago? No.

All of this being said, I was playing an open mic in Columbia, MO in 2017 and a guy from the back of the room yelled Freebird in the middle of my set.

I played five minutes of the song (basically everything until the electric guitar solos since I was a solo acoustic act that evening), put him in his place, and when I finished I indirectly spoke to the audience, speaking to that guy directly,

“Never shout Freebird at a concert again. Because you and I both know that we didn’t enjoy the past five minutes.”

Boring Audience Members, are those who basically just don’t care. They’re playing on their cellphones, they’re sitting three feet from the stage in a mostly empty bar, and you’re nothing more than background noise.

These people, while yes, technically are better than hecklers, can be just as distracting.

Performers like myself have a compulsion to entertain, and when we see someone who is having more fun playing Fruit Ninja on their cellphone than listening to the musician who worked for days preparing to play their half hour set.

Seeing someone sitting in the bar with their face illuminated by the white light of a screen is like a whole new kind of person. We grow distasteful of people who don’t live enough in the moment to have an honest experience of the present.

Yes, some people are using their phones to take photos, videos, and post on social media about the artist they’re watching, but we must be realistic and accept that most people are texting their friends from across the table asking about what bar to go to next simply because it’s too loud to talk about it out loud (yes, I do that too.)

~Regardless~

Regardless of whether a show was good or bad though, I’ll speak for myself and not other musicians, but I do this because I love it. Performing is the only thing that truly makes me feel like I’m living in the moment. The energy of the audience, the lights, the sounds, the drinks, and the food (usually the food is my favorite part)…these are all the reasons I perform compulsively.

It’s not a hobby. It’s my job. It’s my 128 hour a week job that is constantly being worked. The 30-90 minutes I get to spend on stage though, those are the moments when I’m happiest and most fulfilled. The audience is why I do it, the art is why I do it, the love is why I do it.

~Fin.

 

“Sorry, What did you say? I couldn’t hear you.” – Aaron Schilb

I am a singer/songwriter and I am almost completely deaf.

For those of you who may not know, I suffer form a condition known as Otosclerosis which is where I experience abnormal bone growth in my middle ear resulting in hearing loss.

weird al accordion
“Weird Al” Yankovic pictured in Halifax, Nova Scotia

First signs of hearing loss manifested themselves as inattentiveness in school, “selective hearing” when my parents spoke to me, cranking the television or radio as loud as it could go, and excessive yelling. Though none of these things are out of the ordinary for a 10-year-old boy. After all, what kind of 10 year old doesn’t want to listen to a “Weird Al” Yankovic accordion solo with his radio cranked to eleven?

Despite being mostly dismissed through early childhood, I failed school-mandated hearing test – this lead to the first of dozens of doctor visits and MRI scans.

My childhood ENT specialist, Dr. Sindey Christiansen, was a nice enough man, but his bedside manner left much to be desired. He was often cold, blunt, and rude with this explanations of what was happening to me. (Telling a child that they will go completely deaf before adulthood is kind of brutal, right?) During my ear exams he would be so rough and forceful with me that I once nearly vomited from the pain.

~Many years of useless doctors visits later~

stapedectomyAt age 16 I underwent my first left ear procedure, a stapedectomy. This is where the surgeon removes part of the Stapes bone in the middle ear, drills a small hole, and implants a prosthesis that allows the bone to once again vibrate when sound hits it.

With a 90% success rate the odds were in my favor that I would once again be able to hear.

I was not so lucky. I fell into the category of the 1% where middle ear surgeries actually WORSEN the condition. The piston installed in my left ear was attacked by scar tissue and consequently broken.

And to top it all off, I experienced a post-op condition of temporary loss of taste on the left side of my tongue. This was caused by the surgeon bumping a nerve inside of my ear that controlled my sense of taste. He stated that it would return in roughly two weeks – it did not. To this day, eight years later, I still cannot taste sweets on the left side of my tongue.

Despite multiple surgies to attempt at a reconciliation to restore my hearing, I was eventually presented with the only remaining option – dual hearing aids to correct major bilateral hearing loss. 

I had just started writing music. I had just formed my first band. I had just found my first love.

Heart. Broken.

~Oh, you’re deaf? How do you play music if you can’t hear it?~

I swear I am asked this question multiple times each week and even more so now that I live in Nashville, TN which is colloquially known as “Music City USA”.

I am able to write, record, and perform music due in large to my brilliant hometown audiologist Dr. Morgan Hahn.

Because I am a musician and audio engineer, I am impossibly picky about the way things sound sonically. Getting a good mix on a song with two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals is hard. But getting a good mix of ALL SOUNDS ON THE ENTIRE PLANET EARTH is nearly impossible.

Dr. Hahn was patient with me when I would come back to her office twice a week for nearly three years while I adjusted the EQ mix of my hearing aids and got refitted for the c-shells that live inside of my ear canals 17 hours a day.

Despite saying that if I continue to play music I’ll certainly go entirely deaf, I have to ignore these warnings. Playing music isn’t just a desire, it’s a compulsion. I actually go through deep depressive waves when I don’t write or perform. Music is the only drug that makes the blues go away. (What’s funny is when I write a blues song and it makes me happy. The blues make my blues go away™ – maybe that’s a song in the future? I’ll go ahead ™ that right now just in case.)

If you keep a sharp eye out at my live shows, you might just catch a glimpse of the tiny devices that enable me to do what I love.

~ How I do more than just “get by” with my hearing aids~

Without purging the nitty gritty details of exactly what’s happening in these insanely expensive computer things in my ears (these often cost $3,500 per ear and aren’t even covered by most insurance carriers because it’s a “pre-existing condition”) I’ll say that they have a few different settings that help me out. IMG_0382.JPG

First is an automated pre-set that adjusts volumes according to how loud my surroundings are. It filters out both high and low frequencies to help “focus” the mid range frequencies at which most people speak.

Second is a wide open pre-set that allows all frequencies to be amplified. No longer using a spectral gate to filter out “unnecessary” sounds, I am allowed to hear appropriately loud sounds. ~This is the setting I use while performing~ because it has such a wide frequency response rate which allows me to hear my guitar and voice (or anything else) while performing.

Third is my personal favorite…… THE MUTE FUNCTION.

It conveniently allows me to live in silence. And yes, I know what you’re thinking, “You’re deaf. If you want silence, why don’t you just take out your hearing aids”.

I use the mute function because it allows me to feel like I am in control of my hearing loss. I can choose to hear everything around me and be a part of the world, or if I need to focus and do work (or take a nap in the library like when I was in college), I can do so.

While in reality, no, I am not in control of my condition and it’s a possibility I’ll go completely deaf before I’m 30, it’s more of a placebo for my self-esteem to feel like I have the decision to not hear.

That choice to temporarily be in total silence gives me power. It’s the silver lining surrounding this degenerative middle-ear bone condition I’ve suffered from since I was 10.

~It’s really damn hard not to lose hope~

There are days when I wake up literally on the wrong side of the bed… unable to feel the vibrations of my cellphone alarm. Consequently I have to start some days being late, feeling rushed, and honestly, a little pissed off at myself for not laying still enough or close enough to my phone while sleeping to wake up on time.

It sucks to be reminded of my disability from the moment I wake up in the morning to the moment I take out my hearing aids at night.

I once left the water in my sink running all night because I couldn’t hear anything when I turned off one handle and unknowingly had turned on both the hot and cold knobs.

It’s really easy to feel sorry for myself; to wallow in my self doubt; to want to give up every time one of the batteries in my hearing aids dies in the middle of a show (yes, that has happened and it’s super funny to watch the audience try to figure out what the hell I’m doing).

But no matter what I refuse to lose hope. Hope is the only thing that gets me through the day. Hope is how I know I will get to where I need to be.

“I think it’s about hope. About offering hope and this idea that we can be, and all are, enslaved in some way. Imprisoned in some way. We’re doing it to ourselves most of the time. […] and I guess it’s that if you understand that everyone is trapped to a certain degree the movie offers the possibility that there is a place in the sun for you somewhere. There is a place that with some perseverance and patience, and a little luck…you can get there”

– Tim Robbins discussing his performance in The Shawshank Redemption on the ID10T Podcast with Chris Hardwick.

~What’s next?~

IMG_0329
Aaron Schilb recording his new album “Rock & Roll Degenerate” in CBP Studios, Nashville TN

I am in the process of recording my new album, “Rock & Roll Degenerate”, as an homage to my degenerative hearing condition. I am not a leather wearing, long-haired rocker dude. I am more of a sweater wearing, Big-Foot-On-My-Socks, hearing aid clad,  rocker type of dude. So in more than one way am I a different kind of degenerative rock and roller.

Overcoming the (oftentimes) bleak and discouraging feelings that stem from losing my ability to hear, I will persevere; I will press on.  Not being a musician has never and will never be an option.

“Come close, don’t you understand that I’m a different kind of rock and roll degenerate, man?”

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Tracking listing for my new record:

  1. Rock & Roll Degenerate
  2. Blowing Smoke
  3. Running from Redemption
  4. Montreal
  5. Alive
  6. When the Sun Goes Down