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The Fifth Course

How Do You Get to the Gallo Center? Practice, Practice, Practice

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[Reprinted from the May issue of Stanislaus Connections]

Saturday evening in mid-March, the sun is setting over
Modesto and sending laser-like rays into the large lobby
windows of the Gallo Center in Modesto, California. As picturesque as it is, the illumination seems unnatural for a night-time place like a theater. It is spilling reflected light against the back wall causing the bartender to shade her eyes. The marble floor is a sort of a
pinkish tan and looks fragile in the natural light. I wonder
how much time the folks at the Gallo Center spend cleaning it.

In this moment, I am scurrying across the lobby from the
Foster Theater end to the 10th street end carrying a mandolin,
a gig bag, three microphone stands, and one small powered
speaker. Iím late. Tonight is my first gig with these folks
and my first gig in this place. Iím a little nervous. And Iím
a little distracted too.

I donít usually plug in, and I have not used this equipment
in more than a year. Bluegrass is a genre that actively eschews
amplification as much as possible. Bluegrass festivals that
allow jamming by festival-goers have written rules against
amplification. Lots of professional Bluegrass groups who tour
the country perform with a single center stage microphone.
They feature soloists by choreography, the soloist steps closer
to the microphone, and most of the rest of the group step back.

The other folks, two guitarists and a bass player, are already
there and set up. These folks have pick-ups in their instru-
ments and amplifiers to plug in to. They plug a cord in the
wall, a cord between the amplifier and the instrument, flip
on the power switch, make a few adjustments to the volume.
My set-up is essentially the same, except my mandolin
lacks a pick-up. I need to use a microphone to amplify it.
Iím also singing a tune or two, so I need a microphone for
that as well. Both of these microphones get plugged into the
small powered speaker I brought. Then I need to balance the
output from each microphone so that the mandolin does not
drown out my voice or vice versa.

Finally I am ready, and just in time too. ďDownbeat at 6:30Ē
means we start playing at 6:30 or else the bandleader will
be annoyed and my tenure in this quartet will be short lived.
The band is set up at the west end (10th street end) of the
lobby, facing east with the windows on our left. The room
is huge and looks cavernous to a musician: three stories
tall floor to ceiling with sonically reflective surfaces in the
glass windows and the marble floors. Iím expecting that our
amplification will bounce all over the place creating a lot of
noise for the incoming patrons.

But I am wrong. 1) Weíre keeping the volume down. The
amplification is just to bump the volume level up a hair or
two above conversational levels. 2) The inside surfaces of the
lobby are soft and curved. The floors under the balcony are
carpeted, the seating is upholstered and heavily cushioned,
the walls are curved and contoured. These elements combine
to absorb sounds. 3) The lobby fills with people, and people
are excellent at taming the sonic landscape.

Iím still distracted. New place, new band, new material.
My concentration leaks, and as a result my playing stumbles
in places. I really need to practice the B part to ďSoldierís
Sometimes the second time through, the fingers on my left
hand rebel and cause a train wreck on the fretboard of my
mandolin.

Despite my tardiness and despite my struggle to concen-
trate in spots, the band acquires an audience. A semi-circle
forms between the four of us and the nearest entrance.
Everyone I can see is smiling. One or two adventurous people
do a little dancing. Some are clapping along. An enthusiastic
audience is an intoxicating sight for a musician.

Indeed, winning an audience is a musicianís triumph. I
imagine athletes feel something similar setting a personal-best
record. The four of us walked into a lobby to play some mu-
sic together and to see the show afterward, but we got much
more than that. We got to move people. And we feel like all
of the time and effort we spend learning material, practicing
technique, maintaining our instruments, and dragging equip-
ment around is worth it.

I have never busked before; never just started playing
in a public place with an open case to receive tips. But I
am interested now. A gig at the Gallo Center proved to me
that people in Modesto are open to music that shows up in
unexpected places. If the music is good, Modestans respond
in kind. Keep an eye out downtown. You might see me soon
playing for tips at the 10th street plaza. And donít be shy about
stopping into the lobby of the Gallo Center some evening if
you see a mandolinist in a band through the window. The
Gallo Center checks tickets at the entrance to the theater, not
the entrance to the lobby.

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