Amateurs join Playerz Gotta Play at the Melting Pot. Photos: Erick Peterson/GT and courtesy of the Melting Pot
Professional musicians make music and get paid for it. But in Shanghai there is an intriguing range of venues where amateur musicians who play and sing for the love of the art can swing with professionals, a mixture hard to find in other cities in the world.
At 288 The Melting Pot on Taikang Road, near the Dapuqiao metro stop on Line 9 Sunday nights see some very experienced jazz musicians on stage alongside officer workers, teachers, IT specialists and engineers from around the globe.
"A lot of amateurs feel a little nervous about getting up on stage. At the beginning they feel a little scared, but if there are professionals to encourage them, they’ll calm down and enjoy themselves,” said the Melting Pot’s Ruby Hsiao.
The Melting Pot is one of the city venues where amateurs can jump up on stage. There they play with the professional house band, Playerz Gotta Play.
Sunday nights especially, from 10 pm, see the joint jumping as amateurs and professionals bounce through a wide range of musical styles. On Mondays the mood changes slightly as blues predominates but the mixture of amateurs and professionals on stage mostly stays the same.
Hsiao said that most of the amateurs taking the stage are singers but she has seen guitar players, drummers, bassists and others. Although they do not rehearse with the band, they can jam. The band plays around the newcomers, blending its music with them or sitting back and enjoying solos.
The amateurs at the Melting Pot put themselves in excellent company. D-Notes, the Playerz Gotta Play band leader and bassist, has played alongside some of the great musicians of the world. His personal playlist includes Stevie Wonder, Ike Turner and Otis Day and the Knights.
For D-Notes the stars are outstanding people and he feels privileged at being able to play with them. He said that Wonder, for example, was an exceptionally kind and open person as well as an amazing musician. But in Shanghai the amateur musicians and young professionals are also fun. They bring their own excitement and energy to the stage and D-Notes enjoys playing with them.
"We’ve got the coolest happening here and I’m very grateful,” D-Notes said of the Melting Pot. "We’ve got some really top-notch musicians who are serious about what they do and it makes me feel very, very good.”
D-Notes said music has played an important part in his life, giving him purpose, and he is glad to see other people on stage finding the same sort of meaning. Music can be an important part of a person’s life and he said he has seen many finding great joy and purpose in music. Even when they do not make a living out of music, they still have a chance to enjoy it and find a reason to exist.
D-Notes said music has given him a purpose in life, and he now lives a healthy, drug-free life focused on music. His band shares his optimism about the power of music, regardless of whether a person approaches it as an amateur or as a professional. And music is accessible to people at different skill levels.
"The more that you get up and sing and play, the more you will learn. That’s for everybody - amateurs and professionals,” said Robert Turner, the band’s pianist and another musician who has played with a long line of great performers around the world.
Advice beyond technique
Turner helps amateurs with things like timing and placement. He said many amateur musicians try hard to impress their audiences with technique, not realizing that audiences want to hear songs not "an encyclopedia.” The advice goes beyond technique and ventures into performance and even into more mundane issues. Band members Yan Boodhoo and Cherry Brown Watson offer tips on good eating and sleeping habits, which they say are vital to playing good music.
All the members of Playerz Gotta Play are happy playing with amateurs - music, regardless of a person’s situation, creates connections between people.
"When you perform with someone on stage, you get the chance to share that experience with another person, learn where they are coming from and develop respect,” Boodhoo said.
Another place that encourages connections between amateurs can be found at the Shanghai Community Band (www.shanghaicommunityband.com). The band stages regular classes at the Shanghai Community International School (SCIS)where amateur musicians of different ages and backgrounds play.
Teacher and band leader Mindy Ruskovich pointed out the diversity in the classes, noting that her class included a 9-year-old as young students sit next to older people who have decades of experience in music. Relatively new music students play with other musicians who have masters’ degrees. In some cases family members join in and fathers play with their daughters and sons. Ruskovich, who comes from the US and joined SCIS as a high school and middle school band teacher, said that community bands like the one she organized recently, are fairly common in most cities around the world, but not in Shanghai. She started this group last November to fill a need, welcoming anyone, regardless of their skill level.
In class students refresh their musical knowledge and abilities and learn new techniques.
"A lot of the people haven’t played for a long time, so maybe their reading isn’t up to par and I help them with rhythms. I have a lot of young students as well as adults and the students need reminders of fingering techniques or things like that. I run this as a band class, but make it a little more accessible to adults so that they don’t feel like they’re sitting in a class,” she said.
The students are happy at being able to play and they have a variety of reasons for joining.
"Music means a lot to me,” said flutist Tammy Smith. Smith was a professional bassoon player who majored in the bassoon at the University of Arizona. She is delighted by getting together and playing with other people.
David Miller has been playing the tuba for 44 years. Now an amateur musician, Miller makes a living working as an engineer for the American Bureau of Shipping.
"This is a great opportunity. Back home in Houston, there are many places where I could participate as an amateur musician, but there aren’t many - as far as I know - in Shanghai,” he said.
Miller has been in Shanghai for over two years. He said he had been unable to find somewhere to play before joining the group. Just before he had signed on he had bought a new tuba and was taking classes on his own. He found this was not satisfying.
"There are a few things that I can do on my own, but playing on your own is like riding a stationary bicycle. You aren’t going anywhere,” Miller said.
Fifth-grade student McCall Delaney, from Oregon, the US, also likes playing with this group of musicians. Some of them are experienced, like Miller, but others are closer to Delaney’s age.
"They teach me how to play a lot of different songs and improve my range,” said Delaney.
Delaney plays the trumpet and has been learning for four years. Though he is, in fact, a very good player, he is modest about this and described his abilities on the night as "a bit rusty” because he had not been playing during the winter holidays.
In order to be good, he said, a musician needs to play constantly. Regular practice at home and at the Shanghai Community International School helps him improve.
Bassist D-Notes enjoys playing music with amateurs.
In between pints
Bee Dees bar, at 433 Dagu Road, near Chengdu Road North, is a relaxed location where players spontaneously start jamming with one another between pints of lager. Jam nights are Tuesdays and Thursdays, starting at around 11 pm. The bar has guitars, bass, drums and keyboard available to anyone who wants to join in.
Many of the people who join in have become friends and it is a good way for newcomers to meet and extend their circles. Even people who do not speak good English or Chinese have opportunities to meet other people and play - music is an international language.
"I’ve met some new friends. My English skills aren’t so good so I can’t speak with everyone that I meet. But I can play the drums and I can play with the people that I meet,” said Japanese musician Makoto Gomida.
Gomida came to Shanghai to study Chinese at the Shanghai International Studies University. He said that he began learning how to play the drums when he was a young student. Now in his 20s, Gomida has grown to love the drums and he is happy that he is able to continue playing.
Gomida plays with musicians like Nathan Denny, who has been playing guitar for 13 years. Denny has spent six years in Shanghai and he regards the musical get-togethers at Bee Dees as a relaxing experience.
"I come here just for fun, just to hang out. Most people play just for fun,” Denny said.
Other opportunities for amateur musicians in Shanghai include open mic gigs at Not Me on Wednesday nights from January 18 at 9 pm for singers, musicians and comedians; and Wednesday nights at Oscar’s Pub at 8:30 pm.