I’ve been fortunate to have a regular gig at a small café for the almost four years. While I’m proud that my playing and repertoire have greatly improved over that period of time (regular gigs do that!) I readily admit the quality of my performances is variable. Some weeks I just nail every song I play; some weeks it’s a struggle. Stranger still, some songs that are fairly complex seem to work pretty much all the time, while ones that are deceptively easy can be problematic from time to time. This gets to that question of intuitive playing, i.e., letting our minds go into “auto-pilot” mode when we play.
I work out my own arrangements of the songs I play, usually attempting to combine chords and a bass line with the melody somewhere on top. All of them required some work in the beginning but after a while they can become pretty automatic. This can be a good thing because if things are going particularly well with a song I feel confident enough to embellish what I’m doing. I confess that I don’t do this enough, though. It’s easy to get rattled if something suddenly “turns to cheese” as my dad used to say. Then I go into immediate recovery mode and return to the tried and true formula I’ve worked out for that song. And hope like heck no one noticed!
But there are also deceptively simple songs that I always struggle with, not because the changes are particularly difficult but because I have yet to find that auto-pilot comfort zone with them. A good example is my arrangement of the great Stevie Wonder classic “My Cherie Amour.” I worked out a decent and not too challenging boss nova arrangement of that song about a year ago, and I’ve put it front of people quite a few times, but at no point can I give less than 100% concentration. Sometimes it works OK, sometimes it’s a borderline disaster! All I can do is practice it regularly at home, trying to reach that illusive comfort zone. I swear I will get there sooner or later but in the meantime I have to repeat: strange how the mind works!
Another example. Right now I have three guitars that I play regularly, a Martin M-36, Martin 000-18, and a Gibson J-15. They are all different in subtle but noticeable ways. The M-36 is the one I seem to grab most often, it is rosewood and has a wonderfully mellow and resonant sound although it doesn’t have a lot of volume unamplified. The Gibson is much more brash and more appropriate for strumming than finger picking, although it responds to finger style pretty well. I also love the feel of its neck, which is kind of a compromise between the narrow nut on the M-36 and the wide, flat feel of the (new version) 000-18. That one is my latest acquisition and it has the classic sound of a Martin mahogany guitar, albeit still a bit tight (this will surely change as it’s played more).
Now here’s the thing. Some days all three of those fine guitars sound terrific in their own ways. Some days however they all sound a bit dull and lifeless. This may well have something to do with the radical shifts in humidity levels that we must endure here on Cape Cod. I do my best to keep my studio in the range of 45% - 50% humidity but even if my humidity gauge reads somewhere in that range I still hear tonal quality variation, often on a daily basis. The conundrum is this – do they REALLY sound all that different from day to day, or is it the way I’m hearing (or – gasp – playing) each of them? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. Are my ears and mind playing some cruel trick?
I guess I need to go with a sports analogy. Even the greatest players have days when things don’t go so well or more curiously, days when to the observer they play very well but the player is totally disgusted with his or her performance. The truly great ones don’t let that get them down, they just devote themselves to a better performance next time. They put it behind them and learn from the experience.
Right now it’s a dank, foggy day here on the Cape. I’m anticipating that my guitars won’t sound all that good when I begin teaching in a few hours. Or…. maybe not. Maybe they’ll sound just fine. And maybe my playing will be too. Time will tell.
Peace & good music,