Rust Never Sleeps

Mike Lawson • April 2021Perspective • April 7, 2021

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I am at a full-tilt Tin Man from Oz level of rusty. It has now been over a year since my band has performed in concert. We are all old folks, 50 years or over, and take the virus very seriously. Plus, the venue we have performed in the past five years prior to COVID-19 was closed all last year for obvious reasons. With the band members all vaccinated now, we are preparing for our first return performance in the middle of April. We perform every other Monday at one of the coolest venues in Nashville, Acme Feed and Seed, and have missed the gigs for all the right reasons.

I’ve kept busy during the past year as the lifelong musician that my music teachers (well, most of them!) hoped I would be as a kid. I’ve written new music, and recorded and released two albums, and am halfway through a third one. What I didn’t write, I covered from songs I’ve always wanted to record. I’ve collaborated with several dozen musicians from around the world to make these albums. From as far away as Argentina, the UK, Europe, the Middle East, around the USA, and some even just across town in Nashville who still recorded their tracks remotely and sent them via Drobox. This has kept me musically engaged, and my Pro Tools chops have probably never been better. I’ve released a dozen videos on YouTube to give the songs more traction out there in this great big world of musicians stuck at home suddenly recording and releasing music over and above the normally massive amount that gets released now anyway. No potential stardom delusions here, it’s just that I am and always will be a musician, and musicians have to make music. It is a compulsion, and a healthy one.

One thing that is very certain, though. Even with all this collaboration, composing, multitrack recording, mixing, and all the many hours that go into this kind of musical work, I am rusty. Very, very rusty. There is simply no equivalent to live performance vs studio session performance. So, believe me when I tell you I completely empathize with your, and your band students, many of whom have missed out on in-person collaborative live performances. Sitting down to record a guitar track, or a bass track, or a vocal, is just not the same amount of exertion as is a live concert performance. And it never can be, because there is no audience, there is no time limit, there is no demanding improvisation, and you can re-do your recorded performance in take after take, or edit it to your heart’s content these days.

Nobody wants to get on stage and flail and fail in front of an audience. We are all usually our own biggest critics. Even after having performed now for over 40 years of my life, and many of these songs for most of that time, I’m still nervous, because I know what I’ve been missing by not getting to perform concerts. Your experienced students know what they are missing, too.

As I write this, I am about two weeks away from that first return to the stage. And I am nervous. Not so much that I won’t remember the words, or the arrangements and chords, I can cheat at that with an iPhone or iPad attached to a stand in front of me with charts. I’m nervous about my voice making it through three live sets. I’m nervous about my hands being able to play that long again without cramping up. I’m nervous that my muscle memory may have suffered some amount of atrophy the past year because even with recording 40+ songs in my home studio, I was not playing hard and fast and consistently for three hours every other week for the past year. That’s a good 75+ hours of live performance time missed. That’s not good. So, with two weeks to go, I’m about to hit the woodshed pretty hard and try to get my chops back, not only in my hands, and in my voice, but in simply standing up for three hours with a 13lb guitar around my neck.

Rust creeps in when you don’t keep things well-oiled and free-flowing. No doubt, it will be this way with your students and any live performances they attempt this year, if you are one of the very large population of schools where in-person performances simply were not happening as they have in the past. It is always good to remind your students why they need to keep playing, why they need to take their rehearsal time at home or in class or wherever seriously, because this is a use-it-or-lose-it game we are playing. Wish me luck.

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