“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll never forget the way you made them feel.”
– Maya Angelou
Octoblues festival in Germany holds a special place in my heart as a warm and inclusive blues event, and I love that I’m a regular part of it.
This year Katrin and Jered’s vision for the event was to create a journey through the history of blues dance and music. As part of that I was given a chance to teach a class on DJing. It’s one of my favourite topics but I don’t get to talk about it too often. I wasn’t sure how much of an audience there would be, but I was excited to find out!
About twenty people gathered in the café bar with me on Sunday afternoon. I had a cup of tea and shared my thoughts on how to collect, organise and play a personal and authentic collection of music.
I wasn’t sure how it was coming across, but was happy to have lots of questions, so I thought it went well.
Later that evening someone told me they really enjoyed my talk, because I was clearly serious about music, DJing and teaching! That made me laugh!
When a complete stranger takes some time to say something like that, it means a lot, and I’m still smiling in recollection.
Here are my notes from the session. I hope you find them interesting.
How to collect and select music so you build an authentic collection (and you be a better DJ)
As a DJ you need to have a wide range of music that you know really well, and then to be able to find the right song for the right time.
This starts with building an honest and authentic collection.
What do I mean by ‘honest and authentic’?
It needs to be music you connect to. It needs to resonate with you. Ideally your dancers, too, but it all starts with you.
Your collection doesn’t have to be huge to start with. You can grow it steadily over time. Initially, think of your music collection as your mix-tape. It might be small but it’s your starting point.
What songs do you want to listen to over and over?
Spotify is a great tool to try out new music as it allows you to explore and discover using your existing music as a starting point, which is interesting.
Something I love less is that because it’s ‘free’ it can be tempting to ‘over collect’ and not be selective enough. There is always more to discover which makes it harder to ‘commit’. Your taste and style will evolve and change over time, for sure, but you should still have a core collection of awesome music.
Spotify is where I go to listen to songs I gather from a wide range of places – friends, other DJs, music I’ve picked up from films and bars or coffee shops. I put them all into a list of new music.
If I hear something and it ‘hits’ me straight away, I want to buy it, but I wait until I’ve heard it a few times to really make sure.
I only buy music that makes me want to dance!
I want the songs I play to have a tangible, physical effect on my body. I would also consider what movement does this bring out in me? Short, quick steps? Longer gliding ones?
Dance teachers build great collections of music to help their students to learn different styles of dance and ways of moving. My primary goal in building my music collection is different.
The most important thing for me is how the music makes me feel. Blues can make me feel happy as well as sorrowful, sensual or wishful and many different nuances in between.
So if I can’t connect with a song on an emotional level, in some way, I’m unlikely to want to play it.
My music is organised inside of iTunes in lots of different playlists, which I use as folders. (iTunes calls them playlists, but I don’t use them in that way.)
Some broad sub-headings are based on genre:
Classic Chicago, Vaudeville, New Orleans jazz, Funk, Gospel, Latin…
Other sub-headings are based on mood:
Power, gentle, happy, beautiful, sexy, hip, cool…
I also have sub-headings by instrument:
Smooth piano, relaxed sax, strings, banjo, clarinet…
I also have sub-headings for favourite artists, including:
John Lee Hooker
Keep all your music in one master playlist and listen to it on ‘shuffle’ as much as you can. This will help you become really familiar with it.
Listen for what happens when you listen to a song follow the previous one.
Is it a smooth transition?
Is it too similar?
Or too different?
Most importantly, does it work?
Find a song you love. Find a song that follows it well. Find another.
Practice keeping one element of the music the same while you change something else.
Here’s an example of a ‘band-break’ set that I played at Berlin Blues Explosion last year. The band playing was the Rag-time Millionaires. You can watch them playing at the start of this music highlights video:
For the band-break I decided that all the songs I played would include piano, and mainly female vocal. I wanted to keep something the same as the band (piano and maybe guitar and bass) and introduce something different (female vocal).
Small transitions in style help to keep the dancers on the floor and help to create atmosphere.
Any time spent on self-reflection is incredibly worthwhile. It gives us a chance to acknowledge what went well as well as note something that could be adjusted or improved for another time.
I save all my sets in a folder grouped by year and by the event name. I listen back to every set after I play. I find it useful to think back through the decisions I made. I listen especially to the transitions I made and consider whether I feel they worked well or could have been better.
At weekend events, I also take my DJ journal and make notes after each set. If I’m organising the DJ schedule at the weekend I make notes on that too.
Reading back through these notes I realise how much I’ve learned from conversations with other DJs I respect and admire.
Annette Kuhnle spent so much time with me when I first started out, and helped me understand the importance of transitions between songs.
Jered Morin generously shared the system and structure of his music files when he barely knew me. He’s always there to listen and offer encouragement when I needed to debrief.
Dan Repsch’s DJ workshop at Livin’ the Blues 2014 helped me think about the moods and feelings of songs. That completely changed the way I play.
Every time I hear another DJ I am inspired by something they play or the way they play it.
I hope this short piece has given you some ideas, wherever you are on your DJ journey, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!