Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cigars, Whisky and Discussion

One of my favorite aspects of music and musicians is that education, pedigree and even personal experience don't mean a thing (or at least not for long). Musicians are pretty quick to get to a more pure form of assessment: you can either play or you can't. Even if you have a place to rehearse or a van and are willing to drive the equipment to gigs, no one confuses that with whether or not you can play.

Once you've passed the can-play threshold, there are more fine grained metrics: sense of time, pitch, groove, creativity, repertoire, consistency, site-reading, improvisation, and so on. Even great musicians who are strong in many areas oftentimes have weaknesses. Piano players are notorious for having a terrible sense of time. Since they tend to play unaccompanied or as accompaniment, they are rarely required to keep time with others. Their lack of timing goes unnoticed until they have to play with a band and everyone is wondering, "WTF, I thought this guy was really good!"

Drummers often have poor or no pitch. For that matter, many musicians who've learned to play printed music have no sense of pitch. It's only when he's required to play by ear or improvise that you discover Bill the bass player is tone-deaf.

Even when you can play, there's plenty of opportunity for growth. Fortunately, you almost never encounter situations where you're required to be good in all areas. In a new situation, the wise musician is quick to identify his newly exposed musical deficits and then to work through them in the most efficient and effective way possible. That'd be the wise musician. The less-than-wise musician, well, not so much. He hears the deficit, tries to deny it, and finally avoids it. Retreating to his areas of strength, he tries to restructure the situation to accommodate the deficit. One strategy is sustainable, the other not.

In my experience, the musical situation that best exposes deficits is small group performances of improvised or unrehearsed material. Small Group because there's nowhere to hide; individual performers can mask a mistake as a sudden change of direction and large groups afford many places to hide. Performance because you have to do it in the moment; there are no do-overs, no pauses to work through challenging sections, no fixes in the mix. Improvised or unrehearsed because it offers a high environmental-uncertainty quotient; you have to be completely present with yourself, your instrument, your bandmates and the music.

Small group performance of improvised or unrehearsed music offers a great proving ground for theories of personal development. Oftentimes we "work on ourselves" in environments that are hospitable and accepting. We believe that we've changed (that we've learned to manage stress, that we've gained confidence, that we've become present and focused), when in fact all we've done is to restructure our environments so as to avoid things that trigger stress, self-doubt or befuddlement. If you want to put all that to the test, walk on stage with three or four other musicians and perform a song that you've never performed (as a group or individually).

It's an amazing opportunity, but also one for which I rarely find takers, that is, until recently. Over the past months my bandmates have magically transitioned from reluctant to open to cautiously engaged to enthusiastically engaged to actively seeking opportunities to stretch in this manner. It's as though everyone realized that failure is an illusion and just decided to go for it. There are times where reluctance reenters the picture, but they are fleeting.

The results are thrilling. For example, yesterday at rehearsal we worked on several new songs each of which we played just once. During that one time, we created individual parts, parallel parts, solos, harmonies, and pretty much everything that would be required to perform the song before an audience. Our first playing of the third song was performance-grade. It was amazing.

I could say that all this is due to our many hours of rehearsing or our diligence in individual practice sessions but fact is we don't rehearse all that much (individually or as a group). Instead, I would have to say it comes down to cigars, whisky and discussion. Lately, somewhere midway our Saturday rehearsals with Will Power Blues, we've taken to pausing for a discussion break.

We throw open all the windows, gather around the kitchen counter and, with a small pour of whisky in one hand and a nice cigar in the other, talk. Sometimes we talk about music, but more often we talk about philosophy, or more accurately we philosophize. I would be hard-pressed to come up with a specific topic; however the common thread seems to be: how we do the things we do, why we do them that way, and how we might change them to better build the person we want to be. Beyond that, we go all over the place from childhood to adulthood, from best gigs ever to worst, from defeat to triumph, from what we'd like to change most to what we're most happy about.

To me our discussions are a form of washing windows. Our vision into ourselves and into each other becomes clearer and clearer. Sometimes there's so much built-up mud and debris that you don't know there is a window. Other times there's a tiny little blemish that has been a huge distraction. This is just a theory mind you, but that clarity seems have made us better musicians and a better band.

Go figure.

Happy Sunday,

1 comment:

  1. After doing some research online, I got my first electronic cigarette kit from VaporFi.


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