Empowering the Musician in Your Classroom
By NAfME Members Thomas Amoriello & Matthew S. Ablan
Article originally published in NJ Music Educators Association journal, Tempo
You may not know the name, but you probably know the hair! In the 1980s and 90s Jennifer Batten came to prominence as the touring guitarist for none other than Michael Jackson and in the late 90s/2000s was one quarter of guitar legend Jeff Beck’s band. Since that time she has worn many hats including player, performer, teacher, author and clinician.
In recent years films such as Twenty Feet from Stardom, The Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals and Standing in the Shadows of Motown have shined the spotlight on backup musicians (or “hired guns” as they are commonly referred to) who are finally getting the respect and credit that they deserve for providing the soundtrack of our lives. Although, like many of the musicians featured in these films Jennifer Batten may not be a “household name” she is a highly respected musician to those “in the know”.
This past summer Ms. Batten hosted a new seminar entitled Self-Empowerment for the Modern Musician which she developed to offer valuable information to the professional, amateur and aspiring musician alike – the authors of this article separately attended the workshop in Charlotte, NC and King of Prussia, PA. Enjoy!
What inspired your new seminar Self-Empowerment for the Modern Musician Experience?
The inspiration came from a number of different places. For instance, I do a segment on software called “Transcribe!” which is a looper, slow downer, pitch changer, EQ-able, and karaoke-able (if that’s not a word, it is now) software – I wish every musician was born with it. The reason I included this is the seminar is due to decades of playing with musicians from all levels who fail to learn tunes properly, and ultimately I find it frustrating to play with them. They may get close or claim the proverbial “just fake it”, but for me it’s not good enough. “Transcribe!” is the tool that removes virtually all excuses from “not hearing it properly”. That segment is also integrated into a segment of how the brain learns and how it memorizes. I’ve learned a lot about the subject and it’s dramatically changed how I learn, so my time spent is more efficient than in the past. That segment goes into all aspects of learning, not just music.
In a nutshell, how would you describe “Self-Empowerment for the Modern Musician” to our readers?
Honestly it’s a holistic approach to being a musician. I didn’t use that specific term in advertising because it could easily get confused with a goofy new age thing. But in saying holistic I mean all aspects of being a creative human including self-confidence, brain science, digital age multi income streams, travel, creativity enhancing tools and habits, plus a section on “fuel” which to me is not only creating an awareness of what foods can either break you down or build you up but controlling negative vs positive mental input as well.
It wasn’t until we became empowered via the internet to take charge of our own destinies… that I took a big interest in taking the reins.
How did some of ideas you are talking in your seminar searching come about?
I’ve been on a path to research all those elements for myself for many years plus some of it is just what I’ve lived through and learned. I find pretty consistently that people I speak with around the world are very unaware of the modern tools available to them. Plus the internet is so overwhelming it’s difficult to filter out the worthless and the valuable without wasting a lot of time. So in a sense I become the filter and share the best of what I’ve learned and morph it with my own experience.
For example, affiliate programs – did someone tell you about that, did you come across it on your own or were you approached by a company?
I learned about it from a killer podcast I recommend in my seminar called “Smart Passive Income”. Each episode is an interview with an entrepreneur. I heard an episode explaining affiliate programs and within 2 days discovered that the Transcribe software company offers an affiliate program. So I put their code in my web store and get almost 1/3 of any sale that happens from someone discovering it from my site. That company is more generous than most I must add. A company like Amazon doesn’t need your help so you get 3%.
During your workshop you discuss “branding”, how important is image to a career in the music industry?
It’s extremely important. Anyone on the planet with internet access can now have music distribution, a store, and make videos with free software and smart phone cameras if they choose to learn how. So there are so many people out there doing it that it takes something special and thoughtful and creative to actually grab someone’s attention for more than the average attention span of 7 seconds. If a great player puts out a video with crap lighting and sound and someone that’s average has a beautiful looking presentation, guess who will get the most viewers? The presentation is part of the brand way beyond content. A great example of a great brand is Imogen Heap. Her creativity seeps through all aspects, from how she dresses which she obviously puts effort into, to all aspects of her creative musical output. Fans know she’ll look wild, have deep lyrics, and creative music as well as being on the cutting edge of technology. It’s all part of her brand that makes her stand out.
Did you have a “music business mentor” when you were coming up?
No, that side was always a mystery and there were always middle men like A&R guys at record companies before wide spread internet use. They were like big road blocks to progress – beyond them were the purse strings, you needed to get into a good studio and get in debt to the record company. It was not a pretty or hopeful sight for most. It wasn’t until we became empowered via the internet to take charge of our own destinies combined with repeated management failures, that I took a big interest in taking the reigns.
How “hands-on” are you in the business of your career today as opposed to when you were the side-player with Michael Jackson or Jeff Beck?
I’ve had “run ins” with four or five different ‘managers’ in my career during the MJ/Beck days, and they all turned out to be psycho liars so I refrain these days. I once asked John Jorgenson who managed him and he said he is self-managed. That was a little confirmation that maybe that’s the best way to go. And NOW he has a manager! He must have found someone special. I have to admit that for me it’s really nerve racking that someone else is speaking and making deals on my behalf. It can be a bit of a shock if your minds are not in alignment. When word got back to me of things that were said by various “manager”, I flipped a few times. I remember I told a guy who got involved just prior to the Jeff Beck gig that basically I’d play with Jeff for a cup of coffee. He turned around and told Jeff’s manager that I was used to making and expected Michael Jackson pay. Michael charged a lot per seat and could fill 50k continuously. That could have lost me the gig. It’s much easier these days now that anyone can contact me via the internet. When people say “I didn’t know how to reach you”, I just want to say “Was your Google finger broken!?” That excuse doesn’t even exist anymore. So 99% of my gigs and sessions are sorted out on line whether via Facebook or just clicking “Contact” on my batten.com site. I’ve done sessions for people all over the planet from the comfort of my home. So to answer your question, I do it all. For last summer’s tour, it was more than full time for 6 months, creating content and doing logistics. Taking it all on yourself is not for the faint hearted. It’s all encompassing, but at least I know exactly what’s being done and there are no surprises of something that’s been neglected. I guess the best case scenario would be to be in complete alignment with a manager who has significant contacts and isn’t a rip off. I don’t know if that exists.
When you speak to young musicians do you believe they are prepared for the current climate of the music business? (Meaning, being more DYI in the business aspect of music – websites, branding, recording, etc).
No, they’re not prepared unless they’re open to learning. There is a lot of information on line but it’s confusing and a lot of it is predatory. If you have to pay a lot of money to “get your music heard”, you’ve found yourself a predator. I don’t think there’s any shortcut to getting out there unless you get launched into the 1% with significant investment money. There’s a small % that go viral on Youtube, which can often be a temporary launch. There’s a lot more work to go into continuing the attention so you really need a solid foundation and a vision. Young musicians need to focus 90% on the music and growing in artistry and 10% on their branding. Branding isn’t something I think the young need to stress about. Instead, they should just be open to sending creativity into those thoughts. There is a certain amount of time I think you just need to focus on developing your craft. 10,000 hours is the common belief in ‘mastering’ anything. In the beginning it’s going to morph 1000 times before you find an original voice. I think the whole American Idol mentality of instant fame from obscurity is dangerous on a person’s phyche. Most of the top 10’s have been forgotten by now. If you don’t grow into your career organically and learn and become strong in the process there’s a good chance you’ll be eaten up and spit out by the industry before you even realize what happened. Michael Jackson’s manager Frank Dileo once said he could make anybody a star. The real challenge was to keep them there. When I speak about branding in my seminar it’s with a big focus on creativity and quality. To me, that’s important. To a record company, there’s a good chance you’ll lose your voice and choices and be placed into the closest mold they think will sell. If red jelly beans are selling, that’s what you’ll be. Sheryl Crow was headed that way; along the Paula Abdul path until she pulled the breaks. Obviously opting for authenticity and a slower path worked out for her.
How important is the audition process or a promo package to a career?
As far as auditions, you need to know how to be calm (which can be dealt with via visualization) and bring the goods, i.e. put in the work and then let go of the result. If you do the work and do your best then you win whether they pick you or not. In the 80’s more people were chosen for looks than skill so some of those decisions are just out of your hands. For myself, I took 3 or so days off when I had the chance to audition for MJ so I could focus on the music and nail it as well as I could. For Jeff Beck, I forced an audition on myself. He was going on the strength of my CD’s and was good to go, but I booked myself to his house to play the entire Guitar Shop record for him and got a guitar synth to cover past keyboard parts. It just showed him I’d do the work. Give the leader a reason to believe in you – CD’s and demos only get you in the door to possibility, live is another beast altogether.
As for a promo package, I think you need it because it makes you look like you have your s*** together. I know amazing players that don’t have anything together; web site, promo kit, CD, or even a Facebook page. They have to rely on word of mouth for work and it’s limiting. For my PPK (powerpresskit.com), I put together a comp of my last CD rather than expecting anyone to listen to whole songs. The average attention span these days is 7 seconds. It’s hard to wrap your head around but people need to be wowed immediately. I’ve seen Beck listen to CD’s and not last more than 10 bars. If there’s nothing fresh there, he’s done. It’s also a bit of a statement as to who you are and how you want to present yourself to the public, from music to photos to videos. The text really needs to be looked at as well, a page full of misspellings and bad grammar kind of makes you look like a dumb***; with so many random smart phone videos out there, taking control within a website, Youtube channel or press kit is the only control you have over what people see of you.
You worked with some legendary musicians in the industry, tell us about the “work ethic” of band leaders and producers that you have worked with.
MJ was the best. He was like the Energizer Bunny and had limitless energy during BAD tour rehearsals. He expected the same from all of us and the end product showed it. It was a tight show we put enormous hours into. To date it was the most intense rehearsals I’ve ever done. I think the best video of that time was the one released a couple years back of BAD 25. MJ was at his peak then. Jeff Beck also rehearses a lot, especially with a new band, but it’s a different animal altogether when it’s a show based on improv. I always wanted another week of rehearsal with him, in part to get more repetitions in with choosing patches between guitar and synth. I had some pretty intense footwork. His rehearsals were more relaxed than MJ’s though. In part because it was such a smaller show. There were just the 4 of us on stage. No dancers, singers, or special effects. As far as producers, Michael Sembello was the only one I’ve worked with to any great extent. I disagreed with 90% of his decisions and think the best thing he did for me was to teach me about the auto punch (ed., a recording process that involves pre-defined start and stop points), I’ve been on my own ever since. A producer can upgrade your product for sure, especially if there’s a band involved that can’t agree on anything. The producer can take the pressure off of everyone by making final decisions.
You have been on the cover of the most important guitar magazine (Guitar Player). When something as monumental as that happens in your life, what is the immediate impact felt? Any specific incidents?
I actually tried to get them to wait until my debut CD was done, but they didn’t. They were taking advantage of the heat from just having finished the BAD Tour. It was a mental adjustment for me since I had been a reader for a long time. I’d fantasized being in it but to be launched to the cover was a test of any insecurities residing in me. I was proud but I knew it would piss off other guitar players I’d been hanging around, and it did. Jealousy is a whole other thing to get used to and you find out who your true friends are. It happened after the tour was over though, so I at least had being in that band for 1 ½ years and loads of interviews previous to the Guitar Player one to get used to being at a different level.
Many high profile musicians often neglect their healthy lifestyles due to pressure, tight scheduling, what are some “quick remedies” that serve you in a pinch when you are under the gun?
I can’t say it’s easy by any stretch, but you need to make your dietary needs known when you’re touring which may mean to at least learn a little of the language of the country you’re in if needed. There are simple apps for all of them. I often stay in a certain Italian hotel. Typically they only serve espresso and a pile of gluten for breakfast. So I learned the word for eggs. I recently heard that Ella Fitzgerald blamed her diabetes on a career on the road. Food consciousness wasn’t anywhere near what it is now when she was touring as a young woman, but it’s all about choices these days combined with effort. I actually went gluten free for one of my Italian tours but it does take a lot of effort. Italians are perfectly happy to eat bread and pastries for breakfast, pizza for lunch and pasta for dinner. When you’re at home it means planning ahead. Juicing for instance is something that’s not difficult to take with you when you’re on the run. Plus you can make up a ton at a time to stock up.
Technology is important specifically to your career as a musician, any advice for young musicians looking to be successful?
Always keep an open mind to learning. Lynda.com is one of many learning sites that are very reasonably priced to keep you up with empowering apps. It’s important to anyone who wants a career in music to have many branches of abilities to offer in order to stay afloat. Drummers than can program are going to be a lot more valuable than ones that can’t.
What are your thoughts on guitar education and how this relates to your career as a musician (multiple income streams)?
Guitar is just the instrument that allows your musical expression. Being able to play to a certain level is just step one. Being able to play in a band is a whole other skill which takes time. Skills like being able to read and write and record music are not imperative but make you stronger and more employable, so why not dig into it all? Everything you learn empowers you even more. I’ve made money from a dozen skills beyond just playing which really helps in dry spells. It’s also good to constantly be changing it up in the creative arts. I spent 6 months in Cirque Du Soleil’s “Zumanity” show. I loved it the first 3 months as it was all new but I couldn’t wait to leave by the end. Cirque shows go 10 times a week with the same music. Even this last summer, I did around 50 clinics, seminars, and concerts across the USA. If I was only doing one event it wouldn’t be as good as mixing it up.
How have the changes in the music industry over the last decade affected you if at all?
I’m much less likely to spend my own money to record another record when people can get it for free. In fact I currently have zero motivation and have moved my focus to education and live playing. If or when I start to record again, I’ll release a tune at a time instead of waiting until I have an hour of material. It’s much more manageable financially and psychologically. But I now understand that the money comes from sponsorship just like free TV, so my thoughts have moved toward developing a Youtube channel, writing books, collecting email addresses like any other business out there. Plus you have to offer some goods for free in order to get people into your zone and coming back. Music is already free so you have to come up with another product. I heard a statement that I really resonate with. If you want to make a million dollars, help a million people. I’m in giving back mode and am more focused on what I’ve learned to date to share than solely trying to get attention for my music.
Any further plans for “Self-Empowerment for the Modern Musician” seminar after this current tour such as a DVD edition?
I have a million thoughts to expand it which includes doing a streamed seminar this winter at some point. I’m still researching how to make it happen but the info will be posted on my site as soon as I nail it down. There will also be a book and DVD at some point. I was so glad to be able to tour it last summer and get feedback from people. It gave me a lot to think about in creating the next chapter and refining what I did already.
About the Authors:
NAfME Member Thomas Amoriello is the Guitar Education Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association and also serves on the NAfME Council for Guitar Education as the Chair-Elect. He teaches guitar for the Flemington Raritan School District and Hunterdon Academy of the Arts. Tom graduated from Shenandoah Conservatory with a Master of Music Degree in Classical Guitar Performance. He is the author of the children’s picture books; A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo & Ukulele Sam Strums in the Sand, both available from Black Rose Writing. He recently made a heavy metal recording with a stellar roster of musicians including former members of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Dio, Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot, Dokken, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, Cacophony and Impellitteri that will be released in January 2018.
NAfME Member Matthew S. Ablan is an elementary music educator in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a graduate of SUNY Stony Brook and The Cleveland Institute of Music as well as holding a Masters in Music Education from Case Western Reserve University. Mr. Ablan’s list of teaching credentials include having served as adjunct instructor of classical guitar studies at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA and maintaining a successful private guitar studio for close to two decades. Additionally, Matthew has been a clinician for the Guitar Foundation of America International Festival and Competition, North Carolina Music Educators Association, New Jersey Music Educators Association and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. For more information about Matthew please visit: www.matthewablan.com
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