Saturday, July 01, 2006

It's Not That Weird Once I Explain It

A couple of the family members of the funeral that I am playing tomorrow stopped by this morning. What they saw when they came in was me, with my harp, in front of the T.V. playing and watching the World Cup match between Portugal and England. It's something that I've done since I was a kid. Da always had me practice with a game on or some other distraction happening. He knew that I would end up playing in situations where I would have to be able to divide my attention. He knew that I would be playing somewhere and people would talk to me or try to get my attention any time they felt like it. The way the exercise worked was I would be playing scales, the game would be on, and, out of nowhere, Da would ask me questions about the game. What inning, what's the count, what quarter, what down, who's got the ball? I was supposed to be able to keep track of all that stuff while I payed enough attention to the music I was trying to play. At first, it was impossible. I couldn't pay attention to the game or the music. Then, slowly, it got better. I found that as the playing part of the situation got more and more wired into my muscle memory, my mind was able to free up a section to pay attention to my surroundings. Once I started being able to do that better though, Da turned it up the pressure on me. Now, along with questions about the game he would ask things like “What are you doing next? What's for dinner? Do you know “Cry Me a River?” This was new territory, now rather than just being aware I had to be able to actually absorb, interpret, and respond to outside intrusions. Again, anytime the music suffered during this, I had to start over. Anyone who has ever played in more informal venues knows that the waitresses work hard for their money too, and they can't hang around the bandstand to wait for you to finish a song or what ever if they have say, drinks from table three, or they need to get an order straight, or they have a message from the boss. Life doesn't stop just because I have an instrument in my hand. Also, if the crowd is bored enough that they are talking to me or each other, maybe it's time to start thinking about changing up the set. Bottom line, if the crowd's attention is wandering, I need to find a way to take that attention. Once I get ahold of it, then it's on me to keep it. It's not the audience's job to pay attention to me, they paid to be there. Sometimes I forget that the night I'm looking on as just another day at the office can be the biggest night of somebody else's year, or more. I must also never forget that music is a craft, it is learned and perfected. Talent is a given at the professional level, what separates the wheat from the chaff, the top players from the rest of the pack is consistency; hitting it at a high level night after night, being aware of what's happening; being able to change on the run if it's called for. Also, with all that talk of work, I have an abstract painting that a friend did for me. It shows balls in motion, musical instruments moving by themselves, and, down in the corner in bright red paint it says “Play with your ax like a toy.” The guy that painted it told me I said that to him one night at a party and he thought it was pretty profound.

I am, along with preparing for the funeral, getting ready for an intensive week in L.A. I have some gigs coming up this summer with a singer that I admire and respect. This is how I prepare for something like that. I practice my fucking ass off. For this set of shows I am playing (no order of importance here just as I think of them) harp (I'm bringing two, brass strings and nylon), guitar (two electrics so I have one for slide work, two standard acoustics, one National Steel Body for slide, 5 string banjo, and a mandolin just in case). I have to be ready to kick ass on every single one of them. Most folks don't understand the big differences in the instruments. Other than the physical way the sound is produced there is little similarity in the guitar and the banjo. Harp? Well, that's truly its ownself. I'm not as good a harper as I could be because of the demands of the other instruments. I have also seen my versalitiy translate into readily available work. Most of the people I work for would rather see me schlepping through the airport with two carts of instruments and my luggage than have to keep track of another musician. It also gives a lot of flexibility to the performance.

I have hours of tape from live shows that I'm listening too almost every waking hour. I'm listening not only for how the song works and what the singer likes to do, I'm listening for what works in performance and what doesn't. I play along with the tapes/videos so and figure out what I need to do. I'm not only looking for what will sound good with this guy, I'm looking for weaknesses. Does he oversing here, does he suddenly speed up, will he need some help finishing this phrase, where can I fit in? Lots of things happen onstage. It can go straight into the shitter in less than a heartbeat. There are also, small, little touches that can turn something good into something great, turn something great into something magical. It's about being aware of the performance as a whole, living entity. If I see another player who can run scales while he's on the speakerphone, or watch a game while he's practicing, I know I've found a kindred spirit. I know that this is somebody that will not withdraw into their own little world when we're up there together. This is somebody that will pay attention to all of it. These are the kind of players I look forward to going onstage with.

Next week we are going to be doing two hour sessions (I hate, absolutely loathe rehearsals so we are calling this week a tune-up session, a beach party, it's a cognitive dissonance thing, transparent but it works) twice a day. Morning and late afternoon. In between times, I have about the same amount of practicing to do. I figure it this way; hard practice makes easy shows..

If my posting next week is a little light, you can hopefully understand why now...
I'll try and do little updates when I am in a hot spot for wireless.


Blogger said...

I wrote a comment, and then deleted it by accident (opened a different comment window and it disappeared). It was a good comment, too! ;) (sigh) I'll try again another day. deb

9:38 PM  
Blogger said...

What I was trying to say in the comment I lost was that what you do to prepare sounds like an excellent plan. There are always so many distractions. There are no perfect situations, and if you can perform flawlessly in the face of many distractions, you're way ahead of most.

You said it well here: "I must also never forget that music is a craft, it is learned and perfected. Talent is a given at the professional level, what separates the wheat from the chaff, the top players from the rest of the pack is consistency; hitting it at a high level night after night, being aware of what's happening; being able to change on the run if it's called for." deb

6:25 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

another great lesson i learned while still a kid was from harry the hipster who once told me "90% of performance is muscle memory, you gotta make playing as automatic as walking and breathing. if you have to think to produce the notes you won't have enough left to get to the performing part." it's very true. there are a couple of singers that i love to work with except for the fact that they withdraw into themselves while they sing. closed eyes, lowered heads, no contact. it makes me work harder because i not only have to pay attention to them (i'm going to have a post soon on the art of accompaniment which is a whole different part of music) i need to do my normal audience awareness because they aren't. the guy i'm working with right now is the whole package. great singer, awesome performer. hired himself a band of stone cold studio pros. it's going to be a fun summer.

10:18 AM  
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