I had a grand plan that I was going to put into effect this morning. I spent a little time this week putting a blog together that I thought would be a really good one. I was excited to flesh it out this morning. But today turned out to be one of those days that “the plan” just didn’t work out. Files needed to be uploaded, I needed to prep for a show in Philly tonight, and the usual parade of family concerns all took away my usual window dedicated to morning writing.
But hey, that’s nothing new. So in honor of this cluster of a morning, I’m gonna use the time I have left to talk about the impressive talent of winging it…….. and why that’s important.
I know a lot of musicians who will not play onstage unless there are a bunch of rehearsals prior to the gig. No doubt, discipline is important. But every once in a while it’s not possible. For whatever reason.
So you have to be prepared to be unprepared.
I talked about this in an earlier blog. At some point, you learn how to do something to the point of forgetting. There is no longer any conscious thought involved. When a great musician improvises, he isn’t thinking about the notes. The notes and the chops are already in him. He is just reacting to the flow of what his ears are hearing.
When a samurai jumps out of the way, he doesn’t think about jumping.
When you go to a dinner party, chances are you aren’t going to rehearse the conversations you are going to have that night. You will go and say your hellos and see where the conversations lead. Something might happen across the room, a person with a strange laugh for instance, that will affect the tone of the conversations throughout the whole place. You can’t plan that stuff, but you know how to handle it with grace.
Unless you have grown up in a cave, you know how to handle these things. You know how to deflect an argument or make a person feel at ease. You know how to be charming. Most everyone has at least the basic skills to do this. But some people are virtuosos at it.
Playing a song is the same process. It’s an instinctive reaction developed over a lifetime of doing the same thing over and over. To the point where your mind barely enters the equation.
I once saw then Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell give a commencement speech without looking down at a piece of paper once. In an arena full of people.
I was in awe. He was MAKING IT UP! And the stories he told were full of heart and passion. The speech opened strong and came to an inspiring conclusion without this guy looking down at a piece of paper one time. In front of thousands of people.
Ed was a master of public speaking. He didn’t need no stinking speech.
Similarly, a great musician oftentimes doesn’t need to know a song to play it. He can react, instinctively. He can follow the vocal line, hear where the changes are going, and with pretty good success play the tune without having ever heard it.
He has years of experience with this. There is no need to be rehearsed. Some of the people I play with are amazing at it.
I once had a mother of a young musician call me about a recording project. She wanted an overview of how I would do her son’s record…… if she gave me the gig. She gave me her budget (It was small, of course). Anyway, I explained how I would hire the players we needed and they would come in and put together the arrangements and we’d do the record right there. Easy.
She said to me “Oh, so I’m paying your guys to practice? I’m paying them to LEARN my son’s songs?” I said, “No, they have already learned how to learn songs. You are paying them for that expertise.” I didn’t get the gig. I suspect she went and found a bunch of novices with loads of time on their hands to learn her son’s tunes. Then they practiced 20 times and made a record. 50 times the work for 20% of the results . She should have just hired my samurais.
Some musicians learn through repetition. That’s ok. But that’s just cramming for a test, really…. And sometimes, shit goes wrong. What you studied isn’t the reality of the moment.
But if you understand the order underneath the facts, you’ll be fine if the next gig is a pop quiz.