Ask Charlie...

Substantive

Hello Troubadourians! What do you want or expect from your playing? When I ask that question of most serious musicians the usual answer is “that it is good.” Okay, but really that answer is just the front end of circularly logical reasoning. How do you know if something is good? Because I like it. Well, why do you like it? Because its good. There you go… But I do understand that answer, circularity notwithstanding. After I’d been playing a while it occurred to me that I wanted to be a good player, certainly to be considered good by my peers was very important. Following quickly on the heels of getting good was the concept of the Best. I considered that idea for many years—too many actually—before realizing that the best was undefinable and therefore unachievable so why waste any more time on it? Does that sound like a cop-out? It isn’t. Rather, it is, in my opinion, a more mature way of looking at growth and competence on my instrument. Replacing best with better was the key. In the weird world of advertising, it is legal to declare a product as the best. The reasoning is that everyone can be the best and, therefore, legally equal. What you can’t say is that a product is better because that is comparative, and you’d have to prove it. Even when you want to state that your product is better than its previous version, you have to say “improved” rather than better to avoid any competitive controversy. But I did     want to get better and improve, advertising semantics be damned.

I put a lot of effort in to getting better and improving over many years of playing. It felt good to have achieved a level of competence such that people I respected wanted me to play in their bands and on their recordings. At some point I realized that I was leaving a musical footprint that would outlive me. And I was honored and humbled when I learned that in doing so, I was influencing other musicians. The first time someone told me that my playing was an influence on theirs, I was literally speechless. I think I managed to mumble “thank you” while probably looking like a deer in headlights. Not being an active teacher, and certainly not a famous rock star, the idea that I had been an influence on someone’s playing—much less that they would come up to me and say so—was completely unexpected. And it was no less unexpected when it happened again. And again. Lest you start thinking that this knowledge led me to get cocky and arrogant, think again. I found myself contemplating my place in the grand scheme of things and I put a lot of pressure on myself by thinking, “If people are listening, I better play something worthwhile…” Not that I didn’t already worry about that; I certainly did. But it is easy to convince yourself that it only matters if some nameless, faceless A&R dude from some major record label likes your stuff, and since that isn’t really going to happen for someone of “a certain age,” then if I like it and my bandmates like it everything is okay. Isn’t it?

So far, I’ve carefully chosen the words to describe the concept: best, better, improved… The closest to what I want to say is “worthwhile.” But none of those are really the right word. What I want to say, what I want my playing to be, is substantive. I like the first two definitions of that word as they really say how I want my playing to be understood. 1. Having a firm basis in reality and therefore important, meaningful, or considerable. 2. Having a separate and independent existence. Yeah, that is definitely it. Think about your favorite songs. Doesn’t that get to the essence of why you like them? The words, the melody, the chords, the structure. How about an instrumental solo? Can you sing it? Does it stick in your head? That, dear readers, is substantive. What more could you aspire to?

But Charlie, you ask, how do I become substantive? Maybe I don’t play enough to consider myself a serious musician. Maybe I’m just a beginner. Maybe I’ve been playing a really long time, but I’ve become bored with my playing. Maybe I don’t have time to play much, or at all. None of that matters. Let’s consider that you only play “cowboy chords” in first position. How can that be substantive? If you play with conviction, if your time is unwavering, if your fingering is always accurate, if you play with dynamics and passion as the song dictates, if you can carry the song on your own, or if your bandmates can count on you always being solid, you are substantive. As a soloist, if people can sing what you play, if are you in tune, if you play to the melody and chords, if you react to the words, if you communicate with the listener and the other musicians, you are substantive. As a singer, if you live the words you are singing, if people believe you when you tell the story, if you communicate your emotions without embarrassment, then you are substantive. That is the goal.

I will grant you that achieving what I described above isn’t universally possible. Technical problems are the first hinderances to come to mind. As a personal point of distress, distraction, and general dissatisfaction, technical problems with the sound system, monitors, and especially with my own equipment can ruin any performance and make being substantive a challenge. It can still be accomplished; it just takes supreme effort. Time is another challenge. Giving your all for a four-set cover gig is extremely taxing (at least it is for me). That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but pace yourself so that you don’t burn out by the middle of the first set. Been there, done that. It makes the next three and a half hours seem like forever and can make for a lackluster and unsatisfying performance. How do the pros do it? They are in shape musically and physically, and they are extremely well rehearsed. Being substantive, while still available for instant inspiration, is a product of study and preparation. Put in the time and listen to what you are doing. Keep the substance, toss the rest. You’ll thank me for it and your audience will thank you, too.

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

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