Saturday, October 03, 2009

Day 25 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Celtic Accelerator cookies edition

Way back in the 1970s, the old Guitar Player magazine ran a regular monthly column with an LA studio guitarist named Tommy Tedesco, who claimed to have played on more than 10,000 sessions and to have the real "low-down" on being a working studio musician--this was back in the day before computers or samplers, when you actually hired musicians with command of their instruments to come in and invent something unique, and perfectly played, for your record. I suspect I probably wouldn't have liked a lot of what he played--he certainly didn't--but it was kind of refreshing, and inspiring, in a "wouldn't it be great if only...?" kind way, to hear somebody talk about making a living playing music. I didn't have too much contact with people who were doing that, and as a teen I mostly saw people who were scuffling to play "their own" music.

At the time, Tommy's column was one of the only sources you could find about the studio musician's life "in the trenches" (to coin a phrase)--there was no way of knowing then that Tommy was talking about an art form that was shortly to essentially disappear.

He had a "rule for living" giving criteria for taking a studio job which I think is still one of the best articulations of the basic rule of thumb for a working artist I've ever heard. He said, "you should never going to take a job unless you're going to (a) learn something, (b) make money, or (c) have fun. And preferably at least two of those three."

I've adapted that as one of the "rules for living" in the Celtic Ensemble (along with "Don't suck" and "Keep your head up, keep your eyes open, don't forget to breath" and "look out for each other, onstage and off"), as "always find out if they're gonna feed you."

I've also discovered that, working with musicians, and especially young musicians, it's never a bad idea to try to add some kind of free food into the mix. I can't pay my guys, but I try damned hard to make sure that they get other kinds of perks--ideally from the clients, and if not from them, then from me.

Especially when your rehearsals happen at 7pm or 9pm, and they're coming into rehearsal after a full day of classes, rehearsals, and practicing. No matter how willing their spirits--and they usually are very willing--by 9 or 10 or 11 at night, they are just physically dragged-out (or "drug-out", as they say up here) and it's damned hard for them to overcome that exhaustion in order to concentrate and focus the way I need them to.

So, after the occasional iteration last year, this year I've just given in, and, on every rehearsal night, planned to cook (usually bake) something, and tote it into rehearsal, along with a big thermos of "proper Irish tea" with milk and sugar. A lot of these kids have only ever had tea as iced tea, and so the tea itself is a revelation for them. The baked goods are usually cookies, or soda bread, or muffins, or something that is portable, incrementable, and which I can load up with extra sugar. The Irish have understood for generations that you can get by without too much meat, in a cold climate, if you consume lots of dairy (in Ireland, cows are far more valuable as sources of milk/etc than of beef) which keeps pretty well in a cold climate. So they eat a lot of baked goods (flour, eggs, salt, baking soda, all keep without refrigeration) and use them as delivery methods for dairy calories: especially butter, cream, and milk.

So I'll bring in some kind of cookies, usually with an extra dose of sugar spiked into the recipe, and the big jug of tea, and know that, after about an hour, when they're drooping with exhaustion and morale is sinking accordingly and they need a break anyway, then taking that break and pumping a dose of butter, sugar, and caffeine into them will lift not only their spirits but also their metabolisms and ability to concentrate.

It's gotten to be so much of a tradition with the band that I now joke with them that "I can never stop doing this now, can I? Because you'll just never do the work without the caffeine and sugar, will you?" And they laugh, and I laugh, but there's also a kernel of something important and valuable here.

For millenia, before union scale or modern copyright, musicians' contributions to their community have been recognized in a huge variety of ways: barter, produce, exchanged work, etc--but at least one of them, one of the millenial modes, has been that the musicians get fed. Whether it's a dram of whiskey and a ham-and-butter sandwich in the West of Ireland; or a foil-wrapped tray of ribs in an after-hours blues joint; or "chicken clump with B-flat sauce" at a WASP wedding; or a huge platter of hummus, tabbouleh, dolma, and et cetera at an Iranian graduation party; or lamb and rice and baccala at a Portuguese fishermen's wedding (all of which I've received), getting fed by the hosts has been a way for the clients or patrons to acknowledge the fundamental, important-as-air-and-food-and-water contribution of the musicians to such celebrations.

And beyond that--I'm their teacher. Subject to the restrictions and boundaries that any mentoring situations requires--the recognition that sometimes you have to refrain from telling them or showing them how to do something, in order that they can learn better--it's appropriate that I should feed them: I'm supposed to take care of their needs, musical, intellectual, and physical. And by doing so, I can show them some ways that they can think of taking care of themselves, of each other, and of their own students, when I'm long under the earth.

So, in keeping with this "if you get fed at the gig, it's like you've been paid more money" rule for living, I've been pumping out multiple batches of oatmeal cookies, so we can share them not only with each other, but also with the concert audience this weekend. With a concert hall that is a former church, and audiences who've come over the years to expect something different, if not also extra, out of our gigs beyond the run-of-the-mill classical concert, it seems appropriate. And it seems right, that, in addition to bringing into reality music that many of them have never heard before, and in as-always-and-ever unique performances which will begin, end, and never be heard again in just that form, we should also be feeding them.

It just feels right.

Dr Coyote's Celtic Accelerator Oatmeal cookies

In just about any baking situation, you need about four ingredients in a recipe: a grain for bulk and calories, shortening and spices for texture and flavor, eggs to bind the grain, some active agent--either yeast or baking soda--to make it rise. In most North European situations, the soda is more practical, because it doesn't have to be refrigerated and it can't die-off.

1 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 egg
1 tsp vanilla

Soften the butter and cream all ingredients together in a food processor; you'll wind up with a soft, cake-frosting-like consistency.

Meanwhile, mix/sift:

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
3 cups quick oats

To this, add the two secret ingredients:

1 tsp nutmeg (replaces cinnamon with some subtler and more aromatic)
2-3 tbsp brewed coffee

Mix dry and wet ingredients thoroughly

Roll dough between your palms (wet your hands with cold water) into walnut sized balls and place on greased baking sheets.

Cook in a 375-degree oven for 10-12 minutes. Remove baking sheets from oven, but allow cookies to cool 6-8 minutes before removing cookies and further cooling. Makes about 24.

Remove and refrigerate. These keep very well, and it's never a bad idea to have a couple of dozen in the freezer for emergencies.

1 comment:

SJC said...

Yay for cookies and tea. Far more exciting than study carrel and diet coke. Can't wait for the concert tomorrow night!