Thursday, August 27, 2009

Practice Makes as Close to Perfect as I'll ever Get

I've been writing a lot, lately. Working on the novel, writing new songs, maintaining a few blogs, and sending out a weekly newsletter for the cheese and wine shop I run with Mrs. Troubadour. You may think I'd get burned out, but the opposite always happens for me when I'm busy doing what I love to do.

Just before I met Mrs. Troubadour I was performing an average of five nights a week. I'd usually get home at around 2 am, eat dinner, and surf the Internet looking for more gig opportunities. Then it was off to bed until 10:30 or 11 am. Once fully caffeinated I'd make a few phone calls to fill up my performance schedule for the months ahead. Then I'd work on a new song I was writing, rehearse for a few hours, and take care of a few mundane things until it was time to get ready for the night's gig. If I didn't have anything booked for the evening I'd try to catch a friend's show, or just hang out and watch a movie.

It was one of the most productive periods of my life. I wrote more keepers back then than at any other time in my career. Practice has always been the secret for me. The more I do anything the better I am at it. Of course, this isn't that much of a secret because it works for everyone, but most people lose sight of that.
I read an interview with Eric Clapton a while back. Eric Clapton still practices guitar SIX HOURS A DAY! And he's Eric Freaking Clapton! Yet I know countless musicians that don't pick up a guitar or blow the dust off of a keyboard until they're tuning up for a rare gig. I've been guilty of that myself, and recently.

But now I'm back in writing mode (and I know, you're not supposed to begin a sentence with BUT or AND, but it's a blog. C'mon.) and remembering how good it feels to be firing on all cylinders again.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


When my wife and I were dating, she mentioned more than a few times that she was a little worried that I might be too much of a dreamer. Each time I responded with this:

"So far, everything I've ever wanted to do, I made happen."

These aren't idle words. Granted, I haven't wanted much. Minimalist by nature, my wants have always been more about experiences than they have been about material things. I've always wanted to be a musician. One day, when I was in seventh grade, we were herded into the auditorium to choose our extracurricular activities for the next year. I immediately got into the line for marching band, only to be denied access once I reached the front.

"You're going to play football." I was one of the biggest kids in my class.

"I don't want to play football, I want to play saxophone."

"No, you're going to play football."

"I want to play saxophone."

"Get into the line for football. Now!"

Much as I hated to postpone my dream of learning a musical instrument, my brain was hard-wired to obey authority (at least back then, anyway) and I signed up for football. I played for a few years, quit the team, and taught myself to play the guitar. When I was nineteen I had a marathon six hour writing session that produced ten new songs. I drove to Radio Shack, bought a cheap mike and a blank cassette tape, and raced home to record one of the new tunes.

Oh boy, I thought, this is gonna be good.

At this point I'd never heard a recording of myself, but reasoned that if I could speak, surely I could sing. I recorded the song and hit rewind, the anticipation of being able to hear what would soon come out of my tape deck driving me insane. Finally, I hit play.

It was horrible.

To this day, I've only heard one person that sings worse than I did back then, and although he was terrible, he was only incrementally more terrible than I used to be. I played the tape back a second time, fiddling with the settings on my stereo, sure that it couldn't have been as bad as I thought.

It was.

My first inclination was to not ever even talk again, much less sing, but I soon realized that this was not an option. I'd been making songs up since the first grade. I wanted to be a musician, and I wanted to sing. If I taught myself to play the guitar, couldn't I teach myself not to suck as a vocalist? I played the tape back a third painful time, and then a fourth. I noticed that there were exactly two notes in the song that I hit vocally. What did I do right when I sang those two notes? How did my chest feel when the sounds were springing forth? I recorded the song again, trying to modulate my voice until I felt that sweet spot deep in my chest. This time I still sucked, but not as bad. I kept practicing. By the next day I could sing. I still had a limited vocal range, and thirty years later I still have a limited vocal range, but by God, I can sing.

I've made other dreams happen, most of them having to do with being a working musician or songwriter. Now I've got two more dreams that I'm working on and the deadline is next July when I turn fifty.

1. I'm going to write a manuscript for a novel before my fiftieth birthday, and
2. I'm going to celebrate that birthday in Paris, France, during the Bastille Day festivities.

The manuscript is going slow, but it's going. The Paris trip is going to be paid for by freelance writing and blogging. That too is going slow, but both projects are moving in the right direction, and everyday that I spend working towards these goals makes the next day easier and gets me closer to the finish line.

Until next time, au revoir.


Music is part math and part emotion. Because I've been a solo performer for most of my life, I sometimes (maybe most of the time) suck at the math part of it. I'll change tempo in a song a few times during a single performance, I'll play quarter notes when I should be playing half notes, etc. I've got friends that play like metronomes, very technically precise no matter what's going on around them. Maybe it's a simple matter of focus.
Of course, there are musicians out there that focus too much on the technical, precise aspect of playing, and their performances suffer because of the lack of emotion. You have to feel connected to your material, or at least give the impression that you are, so that the audience will feel connected as well. You can listen to two technically precise renditions of the same piece of music, played on the exact same instrument under the exact same conditions and like one version much, much better.

Sometimes your playing can be all over the map and you'll have a great gig in spite of yourself. I've had that happen a few times. When everything goes right for me it's almost like a spiritual event. Playing and singing become effortless, the audience is paying close attention, and I feel an almost overwhelming sense of peace. I feel connected to everyone in the room and in that moment there is nothing else in the world I'd rather be doing, and nowhere else in the world I'd rather be. I've even had this experience, fleetingly, during gigs when the audience wasn't paying attention at all, except for a single song when everything came together for three and a half minutes of perfection.

There have been more sports bars and dives on my schedule than I would have liked, and too few real concert opportunities and experiences, but this is true for most professional musicians. The ones you hear on the radio and read about in gossip magazines are the lucky few, probably less than one percent of the working musicians out there. It doesn't matter. We've all had gigs from hell, and we've all had those fleeting, transcendent moments when everything felt right. It's the memories of those moments and the possibility that they'll happen again that keep you going.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Dear AARP....

Today I received your invitation to join your Viagra taking, Just For Men using, Depends wearing organization a few short weeks after my 49th birthday. Kindly take said letter and place it on the tip of your colonoscopy camera just before it embarks on its next journey.