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“Play With People Who Are Better Than You” 10 Insider Tips With Vocalist Sivan Arbel

“Play with people who are better than you. That way they make you sound better, you get inspired and you grow together. The most memorable example I have is actually from music school. I knew exactly what I wanted to perform for my exam and I was too shy to ask the “better musicians” to play with me. After the exam one of the teacher’s feedback was: “You were great but next time it might be better to have a better accompaniment.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing “Sivan Arbel”, an Israeli vocalist, bandleader, composer, arranger and educator based in Brooklyn, NYC. “Sivan Arbel”, born in Israel with a deep passion for music and dance, performs infectious jaw-dropping jazz with a vibrant and distinctive music. Sivan puts her personal stamp on vocals with a scatting-instrumental-like feeling and arrangements, along with distinctive music that draws on a mixture of fresh jazz, influenced by her Israeli/Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern musical roots, and lots of rhythmic grooves to match her onstage dance motions; which always makes audiences dance and smile, from clubs to festivals all over the world. Wherever “Sivan” casts her vivacious and distinctive music, and along with that energetic stage performance… it’s a spirited and eclectic joy! Sivan will also be performing this Sunday April 8th at the Cornelia Street Cafe, at 8PM with her Quintet!

What is your “backstory”?

I was born and grew up in Kfar Uryah in Israel, it’s a tiny quiet village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with the capacity of 150 families and I have always been fascinated and captured by the magic of dance and singing. I started singing and dancing when I was a little girl, constantly imitating what I saw on MTV (yes, yes… you read correctly). When I got to high-school in Israel, I was one of the teens who started the music department at my school. There, I was lucky enough to have a teacher who saw my musical curiosity, and introduced me to African-American based music… Gospel, R&B, the Blues… and Jazz!

I was captivated by this new music and sound I discovered; and from the moment I heard “Ella Fitzgerald’s” scat singing I said to myself: “WOW — I want to know everything about this!”.

Since then I have been non-stop researching, exploring and learning music. When I was 20-years old I got to a turning point of not just performing and scatting, but also starting to explore my own writing and composing. I met a guy on the train (who today is one of my closest friends back in Israel), who opened a new creative and expressive door for me, of writing lyrics in the most natural way for me, my inner voice… tell my life stories.. in my own voice of “Sivan”.

I never had much confidence in the area of writing my own, but through him I found a way to accept who I am, and find my sound and language… style in music. After 3 years of studying at the Rimon School of Music in Israel, I moved to Dublin, Ireland to finish my degree in Jazz Performance. Living in a foreign country was such a beautiful experience! I got to know new people, artists and musicians from all over the world. I learned so much from each and every one of them, plus discovering a whole new country. After graduating I went back to Israel for a few months (…basically to get back all the sun I missed while living in Dublin), and I decided that I wanted to keep on exploring and learning about music and cultures. I thought to myself, what’s the best place for that? The answer was New York City… The place that welcomes everyone from everywhere… and creativity flows from every corner. So, I moved to New York City… where everyday here is a crazy experience. Musically and Personally.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your music career?

When I was 16 or 17 years old, I performed a house concert in Jerusalem with one of my first bands. My mom and grandma were in the audience. I can’t remember what triggered me that evening, but at some point of the show I started giggling. My mom, who was sitting right across from me started giggling as well and from that point I couldn’t stop myself. I literally had to go “backstage” which back then was inside the house and relax. The funnier part was that my grandma tried to “shush” my mom so I will stop laughing. But… Daughter like mother — we just can’t stop the giggling.

Another crazy story is when I just moved to NYC, I moved to a “black” neighborhood. After living there for a week or so, I met one of the people in the neighborhood who’s been living there all of his life. I told him that I’m a vocalist and I just moved here and that I’m looking for places to play. He mentioned some bar in the area but I never remembered the name of it. One day, in my regular route back home I passed by a local bar/lounge that always looked kind of “shady” to me. That day I heard live music coming from the place. I was curious so I went in to check it out. The place was packed with people from the “neighborhood” and community, I was the only white chick in the bar. I sat down to listen to the music and after 5 minutes, some guy comes up to me and asked if I’m a singer. You can probably imagine how shocked I was at that moment. I said yes, wondering to myself how the hell he knows this about me. He told the band that I’m a singer, and somehow I found myself sitting-in with the band. By the end of the night I was received like family, and eventually got a weekly residency at the Essence Bar. Yes, a white chick from Israel, playing R&B at this local Brooklyn bar/venue. As you can guess by now, the guy from my block told them about me, and they were expecting to see me there at some point or another.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

It has to be my second album! My band of fantastic musicians and I went into the studio for three (3) days to record music. I’ve been working on in the last year and a half. We recorded at Wellspring Sound Studio in MA. Man, the sound will blow your mind! We’re mixing the record now and I can’t wait for it to be out and share this new music to the world.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I was a guest vocalist for a performance of the “Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber” at the National Sawdust venue in Brooklyn. What they do as part of their performances, is perform improvised compositions. I actually came to the show as a listener. During their break I was introduced to the conductor who asked me if I want to perform with them. Of course I said “YES!”. When he invited me to sing I had no idea what was going to happen, but because all of the “arkestra” are open minded as humans and just fabulous musicians, we got to create magic on stage and play music together, to the delight of the audience… and the musicians who did not know me. It was really inspiring to observe that earlier as a listener, and even more, as being part of the these talented musicians who created this spontaneous magical brew.

Living in New York City, you never know who you may just happen to meet walking on the streets, on the subways or just anywhere. I was invited to a birthday party by a friend I had recently met. At the party he introduced me to this distinguished looking tall guy wearing a cool white Panama-style hat. I had no idea who he was… It turned out to be Henry Threadgill, the American visionary composer and multi-reedist master musician, and one of only three living jazz musicians to have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, the other two who have received the award, are Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman. I later met Henry again at a speech he gave at the Jazz Museum, and his advice was “… It’s your music… it’s inside of you… compose, arrange, create and play it, do it, let it flow and share it…” Henry has great music life stories, is a great mentor and is musically motivating.

I also had the great pleasure to spend a week long time with Dave Liebman at the IASJ (International Association of Schools of Music) in Cape Town, South Africa. Dave Liebman is one of the most well known, award-winning saxophone players in Jazz. I was a representative for my music school in Dublin for the IASJ. Just being around him, experiencing the same musical experiences, watch him interact and play, and to hear him speak was a very inspiring experience for me.

Can you share 6 “non-intuitive tips” to succeed in the music industry? Can you explain?

1) Play — YOU and always be true to yourself! There are countless situations where I was asked to sing in situations that weren’t in my “comfort zone”, talk about myself, introduce myself etc. and there are countless situations where I thought “damn, I wish I could be more like….” But once I tapped into myself, I realized that no one is looking for a certain thing from me. That brought me to collaborate with people I never dreamed of collaborating with, and that’s the magic of making music.

2) Stay Active — whether it’s by performing, collaborating in other projects, share what you’re working on, on social media. It’s another way of keeping the ball rolling and getting more opportunities.

3) Just Go for It — When I wanted to put out my debut album, I found myself wanting to start many projects and not doing them because of fear for not having the right resources, or just the thought of not knowing how to do something. But just the decision of going for it made me find out and get everything I needed and after all that work — It’s out!

4) Go Out and Have Fun! — Part of being a musician is staying in our “Cave” practicing and making music. As a composer and performer who wants to get the music out to new ears and crowds, I need help and support from musicians, bookers, radio promoters and media. One of the ways to do it, is to go out and meet people from the industry. It can be anywhere! At a jam session, concert, showcase, even at your own show! You would be surprised of how many people will lend a helping hand… because of the incluse appeal of music.

5) Everyone is a Human Being — There are many music conventions and situations where we meet “important” figures whether it’s a person who works at the music industry or a well-known musician. I found myself anxious next to them and didn’t know what to say, until I realized that we’re all people. We all want to feel comfortable, accepted, welcomed, and we want us all to succeed. I remind myself of that all the time and chat on a human-to-human level as much as I can.

6) Things Take Time, Keep in touch — This whole “music business relationship” is like every other relationship. You can’t build a relationship in one date. Keep the people you want up-to-date with what you do or just say hi. And when the time comes, the people will reach out with the right opportunity for you.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Yes. Music is Goodness to the World! It’s one of the most profound ways to build a community, bridge the gap between cultures, races, societies and inspire people. I’ve

had several encounters where different people approached me and said that I’ve inspired them just by seeing me perform.

I’m looking forward to doing a master class in Washington, D.C. for 4th-5th graders, who were chosen from the Public School system to participate in this interactive music program with word class musicians… “Changing Lives Through Music…” I think this is going to be so cool! It’s a unique privilege and opportunity to connect and influence the lives of children in a life enhancing and positive way.

What are your “4 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) Play with people who are better than you. That way they make you sound better, you get inspired and you grow together. The most memorable example I have is actually from music school. I knew exactly what I wanted to perform for my exam and I was too shy to ask the “better musicians” to play with me. After the exam one of the teacher’s feedback was: “You were great but next time it might be better to have a better accompaniment.”

2) Don’t Be Shy to Ask for Help (It can be for anything). I’m still working on it ;) As a band-leader I always thought that I need to do everything on my own, so I won’t “bother” my fellow musicians with anything. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help, give advice, make suggestions. That’s basically part of the whole “growing together” to bring the best music/project to life.

3) Don’t Hold Unto Things. I always thought I was going to be a dancer and singer. When I was in my twenties, I had just finished the army and started an intensive dance workshop and at the same time started music school. I was ready to do both careers. At some point I started feeling that I didn’t want dance to be my career and couldn’t understand “what’s wrong”. It took me a while to understand that everything I was aiming for since I was a kid was changing and that’s ok. Once I let it go — It was clear to me that music was what I wanted to focus on. Nowadays, dance and working with dancers is one of my main collaborations in music.

4) Stand Your Ground and Don’t Be Shy to Say What You’re Worth. Yes. I’m blessed to have my profession being my passion as well. Those two things got me to lower my value in cost just for the “getting the gig”. In the end of the day I need to pay my bills and have a roof over my head, and even more important is to have in mind the fact that I worked so hard to get to where I am today and I have something special that’s worth gold.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.

That person in music/entertainment would be “Michael League. I would love to have breakfast and play music with Michael League — The founder of “Snarky Puppy”, one of the most successful large bands who tour all over the world nowadays. They tour and play their own original music. That inspires me so very much. Michael is a wonderful bass player and composer, band-leader and he also founded the “Ground Up” Record Label, which is like the Blue Note Record, but for today’s hip fresh new jazz music and incredible talented musicians. He just had a vision and made it happen. I’m so curious to hear about his journey, and it would be a dream to collaborate and play with Michael and the “Snarky Puppy” music collective. I am such a huge fan of “Snarky Puppy’s” music, I arranged and did a cover of one of their songs.. “Lingus”. “Michael” call me, we’re both in Brooklyn!

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