Work on It
Hello Troubadourians! I like to rehearse. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I like to be prepared. I play in two very different bands; one is exclusively acoustic and vocally oriented, while the other is very electric and sometimes seemingly chaotic in our performances. However, the chaos is indeed rehearsed or at least planned for. When you are performing intricate vocals with limited instrumentation it is essential that all the musicians know their parts and play and sing them repeatably. There is nowhere to hide vocally or instrumentally. I enjoy the challenge of performing and the results when we do it well. The electric band has double the number of musicians yet there is actually more opportunity for improvisation. This is because we plan for and rehearse those spaces where anything can happen, and the players are experienced enough to read the other players and go where the music is leading.
I’ve never been a fan of random jamming onstage. In a rehearsal, it can inspire creative ideas—as long as everyone is actually listening—but on stage it has always felt self-indulgent. I went through that phase early and I found it to be far less satisfying than playing well-arranged music that left space for the music to breathe and the players to listen to each other. For me, there is a deep distinction between inspired improvisation and mindless jamming. The former requires structure and rehearsal as a support mechanism and the willingness to listen and take chances, while the latter requires only the opportunity to overplay. Harsh? Sure. Prove me wrong.
When I was in my formative years as a guitarist and musician, I naively assumed that the solos and ensemble work that I heard bands like Loggins and Messina, Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton, and about a dozen other bands and artists who were known to play extended musical sections—on record and in live performance—just happened in the moment. Working on that highly inaccurate premise, I was frequently frustrated that I wasn’t able to replicate that magic with any of my attempts with the bands I played in. I figured that either I wasn’t good enough, my band mates weren’t good enough, or both. While I was probably correct with all of that, the reality was that what looked and sounded so effortless was actually the result of hours, days, or years of practice, rehearsal, and repetition. All inspired by excellent songwriting and composition.
I kind of stumbled on that realization backwards; I was enraptured by the live versions of “Angry Eyes,” “Golden Ribbons,” and “Vahevala” from the On Stage album by Loggins and Messina and figured the solo sections were created in the moment. It wasn’t until I heard the studio versions of those songs that it became clear that everything was rehearsed and worked out. I had a similar experience with Frampton Comes Alive and comparing those songs with their studio counterparts. There is no denying that there is an energy in the live tracks that differentiates them from the studio versions, but it was now obvious that the inspired playing on all of those recordings wasn’t accidental.
With Joe Walsh, I listened to—and studied—the studio versions of “Rocky Mountain Way,” “Meadows,” “Time Out,” and multiple other songs with extended instrumental section before experiencing them live. The live versions were slightly different but still recognizable as the same arrangement as the record. And, as a result of hearing Joe play the same songs on subsequent shows, I realized that even the parts that were different from the recordings, were indeed the same from show to show. Wow, you mean that it was all about the work and rehearsal and not just virtuosity?
I think the ultimate example for this concept is Aerosmith. During the summer when they toured in support of Just Push Play I saw them four times in four different venues. The show was virtually identical—almost note for note as well as everything Steven Tyler said between songs—everywhere I heard them play. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense on many levels. The expectations of the audience at concerts are very high. They want an exceptional and professional show for their money. On a more technical level, that requires all of the musicians on stage and all of the sound and light crews to be completely in sync, otherwise things become chaotic in a major hurry. And it’s up to the musicians and performers to make sure the show sounds fresh and inspired whether it’s the fifth show or the fiftieth show.
But why is this significant to you and me? Well, if you are going to play for an audience, especially one that has paid to see and hear you perform, you owe it to them to be as well rehearsed and professional as you are capable of being. Whether you rely on intricate vocals, extended soloing, or both, or you just play songs from the heart, you really should be prepared to deliver a true performance. But what if it’s just an open mic show? There’s no just anything in my opinion. To paraphrase a well-known sage; “Play or play not. There is no ‘just’.” Do you feel me?
In the interest of keeping it real, I do have to acknowledge something an equally sagely friend once said: “Recording is making art—playing live is making music.” Agreed, but we rehearsed the hell out of that music before we went on stage, and we all knew what we were going to do…
While the performance you witness might look effortless, there is no doubt that there was significant work put into creating that illusion. It’s really that simple. And you are capable of appearing that effortless if you are willing to put in the work. Are you willing? Work on it…
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)