Ask Charlie...

We’re Going Back!

Hello Troubadourians! I haven’t played for a live audience since November of 2019. That’s a long time but it feels longer. However, I’ve started rehearsing with my good friend Mark Jackson, and we’re going to start playing some gigs this summer. Many of my musician friends in town have already started gigging as the venues have started to reopen. The pandemic caused the shutdown of essentially all areas of social interaction, and it forced us as a society into the realization of just how much we took things like restaurants, coffee shops, and music venues for granted. It has certainly had a profound effect on my life and emotions. I was only “locked down” for about two months in early 2020. My day job is an essential business, and we were able to return to work on a limited basis fairly soon after the lockdown, so I’ve had social interaction with other people, albeit masked and distanced, throughout the pandemic. Those first two months with just my family gave us the opportunity to get to know each other and to catch up on events in our lives. It’s interesting how little you know about the people you live with until you actually have to live with them 24/7. It’s not as easy as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound easy…if you know what I mean.

It took me a while to get used to the “new normal” of my life and where my music fit in that paradigm. I continued to practice on my own, but I often felt unfocused as I didn’t have anyone to play with or for except myself. As an exercise, I worked out some songs in multiple keys, just to see what worked and what didn’t. It’s very interesting how we become accustomed to hearing things played in specific ways and how chords flow from one to the next. Changing keys often disrupts that flow and can create something new and cool, while other times it’s as clunky as you might think it would be. Smoothing out those rough parts makes you find alternate fingerings for chords and often leads to new ideas for writing your own arrangements. I was also inspired to use some of this new finger dexterity to write some new music and improve on existing pieces.

Still, I have been emotionally tested through all of this, and that has manifested in areas that I would have never predicted. I could write an entire essay on how surprised I was at my strong reactions to such small occurrences and how “not normal” I felt despite having most of my pre-pandemic routine intact. It was like walking with a pebble in my shoe. Sure, I was walking, but being constantly aware of everything, and having to remember all of the different behavioral expectations really wore me down. And having no outlet for my music other than solitary practice was unsettling. I found that I either played obsessively into the wee hours every day or ignored my guitar completely for days or a week at a time. When I did pick it back up after a layoff, I would wonder why I hadn’t played for so long. Bingeing and purging with my music wasn’t healthy, but it was all I could do to deal with how I felt. Conversely, my professional life was moving along—as normally as it could—so I turned most of my focus there, as it was available and demanded less of an emotional commitment.

More recently, I’ve had the opportunity to play a few sessions, so my practice has had both a focus and an outlet. The goal of recording new material has renewed me and, ironically, reduced my stress level. I view the pressure of a recording session as a welcome diversion from the loneliness of playing cool stuff in my room that nobody was going to hear. Now they will hear it. I also need the touchstone of regular rehearsal with other musicians with the intent of getting our music together and playing for an audience. I love rehearsing and putting in the work on the songs. Vocals are still the most difficult for me, but in an acoustic duo I’m learning to be more confident. Playing with a singer like Mark Jackson certainly helps, which brings me to the “technical” part of this column.

As you venture back out into the performing realm, you should take the time to reacquaint yourself with your instrument and all of your other gear. If you have a preamp in your instrument and haven’t played for a while, you probably should check the battery. It might need to be replaced. And be sure to have a spare in your gig bag at every performance just in case. Check all of the controls and output jack and check all of your cables for function, and make sure that they don’t crackle or hum when you move them. If you use effects or have a pedalboard, make sure it is fully functional and noise-free before you head out to a gig. Practice with your full rig to ensure that everything still works and that you remember how to work it. You’d be surprised at the things you can forget in a short time, much less in more than a year. Take nothing for granted! If it can break, it might do so at the worst possible time. Have spares or at least a work-around for anything that can fail. All of this is just good, normal practice for performing musicians but when you haven’t done it for a while, a refresh is necessary. It doesn’t matter if you’re only going to play a couple of songs at an open mic or a full gig, you want to give the best performance that you are capable of giving. A layoff is no excuse.

And, finally, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! There is no substitute. It doesn’t matter if you’re performing solo or with a band, you have to know what you want to do and what to expect from your bandmates. Knock off as much rust as you can in the privacy of your rehearsal space. It will ease your anxiety as you venture back on stage, and your audience will notice your confidence. Sure, there will be opportunities for things to go sideways, but that is always the case in the unpredictable environment of live performance. Being prepared will minimize the glitches and maximize your success. Let’s make it look like 2020 never happened. Rock on, San Diego!

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

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