Apr 032010

I spent a few hours last night with my friend Les editing and mixing songs for my next CD. We got through two songs, and there were a couple of obvious lessons here.

Lesson: If the timing is off, we can’t use a part. It’s not a new lesson. A musician needs to work on timing as much as on notes. I think musicians don’t practice their timing (me included) because it seems tedious to sit there in a staring contest with your metronome. But the clunks fly all over the place when the timing is off with any group of musicians.

One time back in the 1980s I was in the music building at my college, just clapping my hands in various rhythms to a metronome in one of the practice rooms. The director of our chamber ensemble stuck her head in the door and said, “Oh, so it has come to this?” She laughed and left. I’m sure she was wondering why her flutist was acting like a third-grader, but I was humbly trying to improve my timing. Decades later I still have plenty to work on.

Lesson: Play something that is compelling. We had to cut out a few instrumental solos last night because the lines just weren’t compelling or interesting. If there’s going to be a solo, it needs to have some melodic momentum, some entertaining contribution to the whole thing. I’ve seen this a bunch in live performances too. It’s your turn to take a solo, and you’re not ready for it. You play some three-note thing trying to keep it safe. Best thing is to be bold, stick your solo right out there and play something convincing and worthwhile. It’s scary because we all make mistakes when performing. It’s terrible to think that you might mess up your solo, so you just play something timid and seemingly safe. But a guitar or fiddle solo never works if it’s timid. You have the spotlight, so have a ball with it.

I think this shy solo stuff can be solved when practicing. A musician needs to rehearse mentally for the whole experience of taking a solo. Think about the melody, the message of what your part needs to do. Have some fun practicing the spontaneous composition process, so that you’re not caught with your big eyes blinking in uncertainty when the performance moment comes.

OK, so that’s my lecture to myself for today. Work on timing, and practice some bold solos that add value to a piece. On we go.

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