Hello there. My name is Paul Maroon, and I’m a professional musician who’s played in bands for the past 30 years, most recently in a group called The Walkmen. In that time, I’ve picked up a fair amount of information, some of which is actually pretty useful: How to kill a week at a Toronto airport hotel. How to solve the puzzles at Cracker Barrel. What to do when your bandmate literally falls asleep onstage at a SXSW showcase. I’m now hoping to pass some of this experience on to you—the aspiring musician, as well as the listener who may be curious about music in general. So I’m offering my services in the form of this new advice column for The A.V. Club.
If you have any questions—about being in a band, about touring and recording, or really anything at all about music—please send them to me at this email address, and I’ll answer them here. Actually, if you have any questions about anything, send them on in: Kids, politics, sports—whatever. Anything you’d like my advice on, I’ll be glad to offer it.
We just started our 8-year-old daughter on guitar lessons, at her request. She digs the lessons, but it is a struggle to get her to practice. You referred to your mother putting you at “emotional gunpoint” to keep playing piano, and you being thankful for it now. I guess I’m trying to find that balance between not being the overbearing parent that makes their kid hate their instrument versus making sure they actually give it a fair shake. No points awarded for “every child is different, and you need to find what works best for you and the child.” Essentially, I’m just asking for foolproof, outsider parenting advice that’s applicable across all children—but specifically, mine.
—Brad (a.k.a. PoignantTheater)
My mom was very strict with our piano practice. I was the last of four children, and by the time I showed up, the poor woman was worn to a nub, but she still fought a nightly battle with me, and she fought it well. My oldest brother played for about five years, my sisters in the middle for about 10, and I still play today. You can’t help noticing that, as she got a little less strict with each successive kid, they stuck with it longer. I have a friend who also has three siblings, and in her case, they all still play as adults. She says the thing her parents did was allow them to choose their own instruments. I’m doing this with my girls.
Now, none of this is foolproof, because, um, all children are different. But I think, with your daughter, you have two options. One is forcing her to practice and never giving an inch. This likely won’t be a lot of fun for anyone—and if it backfires, it will spectacularly—but it increases the chances of her becoming a highly accomplished musician. So, maybe worth it. The second, more benevolent approach would be to empower a bit, and leave her a measure of freedom in how much she practices and what she plays. This is likely a healthier route—but you probably won’t get a concert-level musician.
In this house, we chose path No. 2, and we’re shooting for “average pianist.” She chose the instrument herself, practices sort of, doesn’t seem to hate it, and she’s getting better. She can’t play Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” in under 30 seconds—in the piano competitions I played in, the kids would get faster every year—but the tears have only been occasional.
A couple other things to think about: The days when a kid would sit down and watch somebody play piano for entertainment are sadly fading. Therefore, I would suggest a repertoire they recognize, so there’s some context for what they are doing. Unfortunately, this probably means a pretty quick transition from “Hot Cross Buns” into “Bad Blood,” but nobody said this was going to be easy. Then you sprinkle in some theory and technical exercises. Also, you can take it easier on her than you think. For example, in our house, we don’t insist that our daughters do Girl Scout stuff for 30 minutes a day, seven days a week, before they’re allowed to make slime—or whatever they really want to be doing. If you can just teach them the basics early on, then you give them the tools to pursue it later, if they want. Our hope for our girls is just to make sure it’s not an avenue that’s closed to them, and to help them understand that direct relationship between practicing and getting better.
My hobby is to collect screen-printed band posters, especially those from specific shows. Who decides which shows are worthy of getting those, and how involved is the band in that?
Bands will sometimes screen-print posters for a tour in advance with the individual dates printed on them, and one-off posters can also be arranged by the local promoter. Sometimes they send designs to the band in advance and ask if you like it. But sometimes the artist just shows up at the venue with a stack of paper, then asks if they can sell their posters. Unless you want to be difficult, you just say you love it and agree. Unfortunately, this lack of accountability is also how you get posters of, say, a crocodile wearing a leather jacket and goggles, riding a motorcycle and vomiting the name Belle & Sebastian. “No, it’s great, really! We love it!”
I saw The Walkmen on the Bows And Arrows tour. You were touring with an upright piano. I’ve always thought this was one of the most insane things I saw an indie band do on tour. Was there ever a point when everyone in the band admitted, “This was a really bad idea”?
We did travel with an upright piano. We went through about 15 or 20 of them over the years. Mind you, these were not full-sized uprights, which weigh 600 lbs. They used to make five-octave pianos for railway cars, which are closer to 250 lbs., and you can lift them if you put your mind to it. Melodigrand made good ones. Concord made the best (if you can find one). But it was a total drag, and we would argue about it quite a bit.
We owned a couple in the States, but it got more complicated in Europe. English tours would begin with scouring something called loot.co.uk for a free piano. The first time we went to London, we found an upright that seemed in tune, but we were running late and I didn’t play it again until we were onstage. Turns out it was in tune with itself, but about two and half steps down from the rest of the band. In addition, too many beers had tuned me down a few steps as well, and I just wasn’t equipped to understand or solve this problem. Also, Hamilton [Leithauser] had snapped my right arm in half a couple weeks earlier while we were arm wrestling. It was in a huge cast, but the bones were not attached yet, so I could only move it by lifting it with my other arm. English people ordinarily love drunk and high bands, but I don’t think they’d seen this particular combination before. They didn’t like it.
A few years later, up the road a bit in Birmingham, a different piano fell out of the back of the van as we were loading it. We had had our share of piano accidents. When they hit the ground, part of them would usually fall off, but they would still basically work—like Rob Gronkowski. For some reason, though, this one just exploded. I don’t think I can do justice to how sudden and funny it was. When the air cleared, there were simply keys and two pedals resting on top of a pile of dust. (I just described it to my 8-year-old, and she asked if it was like when Voldemort died. And it was—only much, much faster.) It couldn’t be cleaned up either. I’m ashamed to say we just left it there, right in the middle of a busy street outside that huge mall downtown (I think it’s called The Cube?). There’s probably a great term in English law for whatever crime we committed by just abandoning it.
I forgot to RSVP to my Garden Club’s special workshop that’s happening this evening. I had been planning on going, but simply forgot to reply. I’d hate to miss it, but I do not want to inconvenience the hostess. How would you advise me to handle this situation?
— “Uprooted” in Philly
I haven’t lived in Philly for about 10 years, but if I remember correctly, I think you call and curse her out because you forgot. Or perhaps make a big public scene, if that’s more you. (Do your kids go to school together?) Anyway, keep in mind that this is considered unacceptable behavior in almost any other city on Earth.
After all the touring you’ve done, do you feel like you know most cities inside and out?
Touring is actually kind of deceptive. More often than not, you get an impression of a place that’s too negative. For years, we made an annual trip to this cheerless block in Cincinnati: Vine Street, near the university. It’s a block where all five Walkmen were memorably called Simon And Garfunkel by a couple of drug dealers. The last few times we went, the city was put under a curfew after a police shooting, and I just didn’t look forward to going. It was only after our 10th year that we finally played a different part of Cincinnati and realized we’d been missing a lot. The town is wonderful architecturally, and you can cross a bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky and discover you’ve actually walked from the Midwest into the South. The buildings change and the culture changes, just like that.
We also played a nasty little part of Denver—I think it was East Colfax—and the next morning, we got in the van and drove two days to Tucson. It was gorgeous the entire way. We spent half a day in the White River National Forest, through western Colorado, a small corner of Utah, into northern Arizona. We saw a moose silhouetted on a mountain ridge. We hiked. We toured a winery outside of Flagstaff. (Okay, I made that up.) We got stuck in a herd of cattle crossing the road (I’ve resumed telling the truth), and this huge cow stopped two feet in front of our car, turned, looked me straight in the eye, and urinated powerfully for at least 30 seconds, right in her calf’s face. I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think there was any real message there. Anyway, when we finally arrived in Tucson, we couldn’t find our exit, but by about the third one, the cactuses started to have graffiti on them, and I thought to myself, “This looks right.”
There are a couple things you can do to break out of this cycle of kinda grim nightclubs, stacked one after another. One is to stay in town. This is more expensive, so it’s not always possible, but getting out by yourself in the morning lets you be part of a city’s more normal life. The other thing is to challenge yourself to be more outgoing, so as not to be a perpetual tourist. You meet people’s kids, have dinner with their parents, see where they work, etc. These are many of my favorite memories from tour. And locals are always more help than travel guides.
That reminds me: I highly recommend the Museum Of Science And Industry in Manchester, U.K. They have every iteration of the engine lined up and still working, from wood-fired to jet (though that one’s not on). It’s fantastic. This is a good example of what I mean. Manchester is big and intimidating and, truth be told, can be a little dark and dirty. But after spending a morning at the museum, you remember that it’s also the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and that there are a million more things to learn about. My visit led me to George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, and every time thereafter has been a little more fascinating.