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It Don’t Come Easy

Mike Lawson • May 2021Perspective • May 4, 2021

Mike Lawson

It’s a Ringo Starr song title, not incorrect grammar, per se. Isn’t it the truth? Learning an instrument is hard work. It’s fun work, but it is hard work. Maintaining your level of competence is hard work. Growing further beyond your level of competence is hard work. I finally got to return to the stage and performing two weeks ago after fourteen long months of not performing. I kept playing during that year-plus period, but I was playing by tracking parts in Pro Tools, recording a couple of albums worth of songs. Recording is an interesting experience in the 21st century, more now than ever, because there are so many options available to compose and create sound with, that the old school thought of capturing an in-the-moment live performance on “tape” is by-in-large a forgotten, even nostalgic notion. Recording these days, especially when we are talking about what most musicians can more readily do with home studios and digital audio workstations running on everything from computers to cell phones, is a layer-by-layer building process. It is an assembly of multiple performances, typically captured a layer at a time. This assembly of recorded performances, piece-by-piece, may involve the musicians playing all of the parts themselves, or circulating their recordings to other players over the Internet, for example, for others to play along with and return their recorded parts back. It’s a “Dagwood Sandwich” approach.

Here’s the thing, though, while these are performances, captured on a recorded medium, they are not “performances” in the sense of concerts, where the demands placed on the skillsets acquired to whatever level the musicians possess are put to the real test. Among the many things I have not liked watching happen with instrumental and vocal students since COVID came along and wrecked everything is the lack of so many students getting to perform live concerts. Playing at home, over Zoom, or whatever configurations so many have had to endure is just not the same. My recordings dozens of songs here at home was/is not the same as my standing on a stage for three hours every two weeks with thirteen gloriously heavy pounds of custom-made guitar around my neck and shoulders. Cutting a vocal into Pro Tools for sure isn’t the same as singing for three hours.

Now, I had about two months advance warning that I would be returning to the stage, and I could have, and I should have, prepared myself better, particularly in the vocal area. Vocals are a use it or lose it proposition. I got through the evening, but lord did I struggle. I was grateful for Hall’s cough drop throat lozenges. My biggest concern leading up the shows was my remembering chord changes (we don’t use charts), solos, and frankly, my hands cramping up. While I am happy to report that muscle memory kicked in and my hands didn’t cramp up, and I didn’t forget anything we played, I’ll also admit we trimmed the list of songs down to accommodate our lack of performing “for real” for the past year and stuck to three chords and the truth.

Vaccines are getting administered. Schools are likely heading back into a quasi-normal new scene, which will again include students in the same room performing real concerts. For your advanced students, that muscle memory will hopefully kick in, and their lighter Zoom and home student lessons will have helped preserve that much as my multitrack recording projects did. However, they are still going to have to overcome a year of not playing “for real” as a group, or very little of it. That will take some time. It will take a lot of warmups and rehearsals and probably a little pain as their hands and fingers regain the strength associated with a full concert setlist. Their embouchures will take time to re-strengthen. There are dues to pay, for you and your students as you ease back into your live performances. There were for me. I didn’t take the time to really push myself by doing live stream concerts, or even just making myself sit down and play a full set of material as though there were people listening and I wanted to not sound awful. I know better, I knew better. As Ringo sang, “Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues, and you know it don’t come easy.” Best of luck to your band students as you bring them back to the stage. Remind them, it don’t come easy.

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