Getting rusty.  That’s the term I like to use for my guitar playing.  When I’m listening to music I love I tend to sing along, so my voice tends to be in half-decent shape.  (I’m no Tom Waits, but then who is??)  But I rarely pull out my guitar and play along.  I was never much for ‘jamming’ so I never learned the improvisational skill set needed to play along with a song.

When I go months without grabbing my guitar…I get rusty.

There’s a quick solution: strum.  Playing chords and strumming along is like riding a bike.  It’s hard to screw up with a pick if all you’re doing is strumming a rhythm and fingering some basic chords.

Finger picking…complex chords…and singing along while doing it.  That’s where the rust settles in.

There’s another situation where getting rusty can interfere with a performance: playing a song when you haven’t played in awhile.  This is amplified exponentially by each musician added to the performance.  Throw in drums (not like a simple rock beat, I mean something crazy) and a bassist who may not remember the transitions, and you have what some may call an Epic Fail.

At an event recently, I did this very thing.  Well, a group of us collectively did this.  We had played a song last August that is obscure (though well-loved by fans of nerdy music), complicated (there’s a hard rhythm matched among all instruments) and quirky.  The song is Ana Ng by They Might Be Giants.  Here is the original:

And here is the performance from August:

Playing with me are two very talented musicians.  Branwyn, on bass, has been in a couple of bands over the last decade or so and has plenty of performance experience.  Olefin, on drums, is one of those multi-talented guys who played drums awhile back and has a mathematical precision..the ability to pick it back up like he’s been playing for years.

We got together a week or so ago at another event and thought “Hey!  We’re all here!  And we know what we’re doing…lets do Ana Ng again!”  Jump to about 2 minutes and 51 seconds in this following video…

A friend was there, he was filming, he caught part of it in the video above.  That was our first attempt.  After a second failed attempt (and me playing a Sparklehorse song as we tried to pull things together) we finally got it on the third, though it was rough and probably quite off-putting to the audience.

I totally believe that if we had practiced once or twice before going on stage we would’ve killed it.  We went up cold.  Branwyn wasn’t 100% sure of the chords.  Olefin had been run ragged through the event (remember the multi-talented thing?  He was also filming footage for videos, after premiering a pretty cool opening ceremonies vid that you can see here.)  I had just run in hoping I could get a song in before running off to another obligation.

The reaction wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either.  I appreciate the kind comments I received after this video went up, though there’s no excuse for going on stage to perform unprepared.  It’s one of those semi-cocky moments which I’m sure all performers have had: I did it well six months ago, I’ll do it well today.

And it goes along with the rusty thing.  Sure, over the past twenty years I’ve performed A LOT in front of audiences, practiced regularly at home…but that’s over twenty years.  In the last three months, I haven’t really done any of these things.  I’ve maybe put in my 6000 hours of performance and practice…I’m 4000 hours short of having any clue of what I’m doing.

At least in this case, hitting rock bottom was actually more like falling into partially-roasted marshmallows.  Not quite as soft as uncooked marshmallows, but still delicious while you’re waiting for someone to rescue you.

The rescue was realizing that I love to perform but need to get back into the habit of practicing.  It was also a wake-up call, telling the voices in my head that say “No one really wants to see you perform, there are better people out there, so why bother” to shut up.  People liked it even if it was a tangled mess.

After I saw the video, I thought it would be fun to jokingly ‘save face’ by posting a video response where I sat in front of a webcam and played a quick, off the cuff solo song that sounded better than the one I performed live.  If I needed any kind of assurance that people weren’t just being polite, this helped provide it:

The comments sure helped make me feel a lot better about where I am now, and where I can be if I practice more often.

So, although I make the argument for practicing, I also suggest you screw up every so often.  Nothing helps ground you, slap you in the face, and say ‘You’re procrastinating!’ more than a bad performance you thought would be good.

Apologies to They Might Be Giants for demolishing their song…I’ll make it up to you!

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