Ask Charlie...

I Wanna Be Like You

Hello Troubadourians! When you do anything long enough it’s easy to get to a point where you don’t know what else there is to do or learn. And even if you did know, would there be enough time to learn it? This is an easy trap to get caught in and it is one of our own making. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others and harshly judging our accomplishments and progress against our perception of what we think they are or what we should be. This is human nature, but it is particularly seductive if you are a musician. We all have heroes whom we at one time—or still do—aspire to be like, play like, etc. We all know this is a fool’s errand, but we do it anyway. And I’m as guilty as they come. I’ve written many times about my influences and my attempts to “be” like them, eventually coming to the realization that rather than emulating, I should be absorbing. What does that mean? For me, it means that when I see someone play who impresses or amazes me, rather than being intimidated, envious, or judgmental, I will instead recognize the effort they must have exerted to get to where they are and know that it is their unique experience from which I can choose to learn, grow, or simply just enjoy their music. I don’t have to be like them nor could I, but I can emulate what they did—in my own way—and add to my own experience and abilities.

When I hear a player that exhibits something that I like enough that I want to include it into my playing, I can “borrow” the essentials of what makes them “them” for a while in order to understand how they did it. What was it—environment, timing, influence, instrument, genre, or some other intangible that created that sound? Maybe it was just simple hard work and practice. I’ve found that there is no substitute for that. And once I’ve absorbed that essence, I can discard any baggage that might have been part of it and use what I can keep as part of my own playing. That makes it more authentic anyway. But I would offer that how much time we devote to anything makes all the difference in the world. Which brings us back to the question of: is there enough time? I’d answer, “That depends on your goal.” You have to be realistic about what you want and what you need from your music and your playing. How good do you need to be? Don’t misunderstand, I’m not implying in any way that we shouldn’t try to get better every day. On the contrary, we should all aspire to be a better player tomorrow than we are today, but it is a matter of degree and the expectation of the return on our investment. Most people just don’t have time to practice for several hours every day—and to what end if they did? Are you a professional musician? If so, you probably are already accomplished on your instrument and have established a practice routine that works for you. Learning new things is a matter of tradecraft for you and you put in the time required to remain employable and creative. But for the rest of us who aren’t competing at that level in the music business, and have day jobs that actually pay the bills, learning new things is completely at our discretion. The only pressure is that which we put on ourselves. I am an expert at putting pressure on myself…

Why does this matter? It matters because I think we should be inspired rather than intimidated, encouraged rather than discouraged, by any player or music that seems beyond our reach or comprehension. Can we let our first emotion be enjoyment instead of inadequacy? I struggle with this all the time so don’t think I’m being judgmental of you. I’m not a professional musician but I try to conduct myself as if I were when I’m performing and rehearsing. I don’t waste time and I respect the audience and my bandmates. That means I’m prepared when I get there. But this is where it becomes difficult, at least for me. To maintain the appearance of professionalism that I want to project, I have to be at the top of my game whenever I play which means that I have to practice all of the things I’m expected to know and keep adding new things so that my playing remains fresh and interesting—especially to me. I have to sacrifice some things to keep that happening. For me “some things” usually means sleep. It’s a delicate balance but I’ve adapted…

Not everyone feels that pressure nor should they. If you don’t perform often, or not at all, then the only person that you have to satisfy is you. If you want to learn that really cool Tommy Emanuel song that you just heard, then do it. Learn it as best as you are able and enjoy the effort and the results. That’s the key; enjoy the process as much as you enjoy the results! I’m weird but I like to practice and rehearse. It keeps me honest and people notice. But remember, you aren’t Tommy Emanuel or anyone else you admire. You are, however, capable of playing their music as long as you put in the work to learn it. Also, nothing exists in a vacuum so what you already know still applies to what you are learning so you aren’t starting from scratch. Remember that when you embark on your learning adventure.

Finally, keep in touch with your people. I recently had a scare with my best friend in the world. I’ve known him for 40 years and he’s one of the best guitar players I know. He lives in OC and we don’t see each other nearly as much as we’d like, and not at all since the lockdown. I found out—through Facebook of all places—that he’d had an emergency triple bypass surgery and had nearly died. Scared, sad, worried, and pissed all at the same time. Pissed that I had to learn about it on Facebook and pissed at myself for not being more proactive with our friendship. I allowed myself the excuse that he was always really busy to not call him as often as I should, so this was a wake-up call for me. Since then, I’ve committed to call him every day if at all possible, and leave a message if I have to, so that he knows he matters to me. I’m sure you have someone in your life that is worth the effort. Make that call…

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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