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Starting Over, Part 2

Hello Troubadourians! Last month we started on our long way back from not playing to playing again. We covered getting used to your instrument, getting any needed maintenance, re-learning to practice, and how to dissect difficult music into smaller parts so that they can be learned easier. This month we’ll start talking about what to do with our newly rediscovered playing ability. Now, I know I told you not to engage in comparing yourself with others, especially with professionals. That is still true but you do need a way to measure your improvement. There are several ways to accomplish this; beginning with something as simple as the way a song feels and sounds like when you play it. If a song feels comfortable, sounds good, and the music flows well and in time, and it sounds more like “real music” to you than it did when you started working on it, then you are probably okay. If you are able to play familiar songs smoothly and musically when you first pick up your instrument, then you are probably okay. Now, if all you ever want to do is play at home for yourself or for friends then this level of self-check is probably enough. But if you have any ambitions to perform on your instrument in front of an audience then read on and we’ll get into how to go about doing that.

When you review your progress you need to be rigorously honest with yourself. Being rigorously honest means that you keep everything in perspective when you are evaluating your progress. Be truthful when evaluating your playing but don’t automatically trash yourself if you struggle with something or you aren’t as good as the musicians you are emulating or who have influenced you. You are learning or re-learning a skill that requires repetition to master. There may be some things that will consistently elude you. Remember, even the best of musicians encounter things that evade their mastery. If you have access to some method of recording or otherwise documenting your performance of a song, like a memo on your phone, a video recording, or maybe a simple recording using your computer, I suggest you use this resource to establish a benchmark that you can reference and gauge your progress. An audio recording is usually the best method to judge your playing progress as it allows you to focus on the subtleties of what you played without a lot of distractions. If you are evaluating your overall performance, then you may want to use the video recording option. A video will allow you to evaluate your full presentation of a song. Did you look comfortable? Did you make funny faces? Did you look like you were going to pass out? Not all of this is bad – or good – it just is what you did in that moment with that performance. I make lots of “guitar faces” when I play and I’ve long since given up trying not to do it. Initially, making a recording of your music can be intimidating. It’s common to have what studio pros call “red light fever,” which refers to the jitters, nervousness, and apprehension that suddenly overcomes you when you start to record (when the red light goes on). Just keep doing it and you’ll get used to it. Yeah, it feels weird but you’re making a recording that is only for your use. It’s like singing in the shower – you’re only performing for yourself. When you review your recordings, remember you’re judging that the performance was not only flawless but was it also entertaining. Flawless is usually good but it can also be boring. Most audiences would rather be entertained and engaged by a performer and a performance than to simply sit and witness flawlessness. I once attended a concert by a world-class classical guitar duo. While they played flawlessly, I found it difficult to feel much emotion from the performance. That isn’t an indictment of classical music, just a personal observation. If you have the intention of playing for an audience then you should want to involve them in your performance. Take yourself somewhere with your music and invite the audience to come with you.

So, you’ve been practicing for a few months and you want to try playing in front of an audience. What do you do? Where do you start? If your intention is to play for your church or worship band, you should start with the director of music or the leader of the worship band. There may or may not be an audition process that you will need to navigate. If there is, be sure that you are prepared with any material that you will be asked to perform as well as the material that you want to present. If you find that there are performance requirements you need to learn and study, be sure to ask for them in advance and add them to your practice regimen. When you’re ready, schedule an audition with the appropriate person who can make the decision to approve you to join the music program, and give it your best. If you want to play for more traditional audiences, there are quite a few open mic events around San Diego County at multiple venues and in different parts of town (see the weekly calendar on page 14). I recommend that you attend several of these events to check out the requirements and the level of the performers before you try to sign up to perform. Some open mic events are just fine for beginners and inexperienced performers, while others cater to more experienced performers. You’ll want to challenge yourself to play and perform at the highest level you are capable of but you also need to stay within your current limitations. Also, some events prefer that the performers be singer/songwriters and perform primarily their own original music. Other events are open to whatever material you want to play. As you get better and more comfortable in front of a live audience, you should seek out more challenging venues with higher-caliber performers. If you are strictly an instrumentalist, you may want to look into playing at open jam sessions. These sessions are often primarily blues-based but there are other open jams that promote other genres of music, especially country music. Be sure to bring your own instrument and any other gear that you need to do your thing but be sure that everything works and you know how to use it. Lastly, keep it simple and have fun.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (

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