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The construct of music offers a mathematic perfection, seemingly able to precisely recreate a performance, right down to the inhale and true to the exact expression. Be not so foolish as to believe this.
Disregard recorded music for the moment; reserve it for an advanced discussion. Live performance cannot be duplicated. Play it once, now play it again. Each performance exists in a unique moment, and now is different than then.
Take It Outside
Musicians have the woodshed, a place where no one can hear you. You’re free to play as bad as you can play and no mama is going to say, “That’s not quite right honey, try it again.” You have her echo to judge and motivate.
In the woodshed, a musician plays the same thing over and over again. Scales, exercises, solos. Learning music requires the musician to keep making the same moves, learning more and more about posture and embouchure (for horn players), about fingering and tonality, touch and tone. You keep repeating, working it out, it’s boring, but necessary. You’re learning the gestalt of music, and it requires repetition.
And yet, each iteration is slightly different. This time through is informed by the previous attempts. That moment has passed, this moment is upon us. I am a different person playing than I was a second ago, and you’re a different person hearing. It’s the same old song, but played in a brand new breath.
Clunkers & Chaos
“What would you think if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me.
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song,
And I’ll try not to sing out of key.” – Lennon & McCartney
Consider the judgment of a “bad” performance. Some critics can dis a rendition based on one flat note. Occasionally, a performance will completely fall apart, with one or more players losing their way, playing the wrong changes and the tune disintegrates. Allow me, please to defend the worst and redeem the rest.
We are playing the song, in this moment, at this time, for this audience – sometimes only the players are present. We are using our minds to navigate, but we are playing with our fingers and feet, our lungs and throats, our mouths and shakin’ booties. This is the performance of this moment, coming from the understanding and emotion we hold for this song, this band and our own souls. It can be no less than perfect, just the way it is.
As a teenager in Wichita, I marched in a drum & bugle corps. We marched many small town parades, and we would often get in to our uniforms and prepare in some sort of church basement or American Legion hall. Often, there would be a discarded piano off to the side, and I could not resist trying it out. The piano was invariably out of tune and sometimes in bad repair. But if you can pick out a melody and set it to some sort of rhythm – even chaotic rhythm, it is – on some primal level – music.
The Principle Applies
Note that this applies to many art forms. An accidental spill can “ruin” a painting without deserving condemnation. Read your notes and research, then blurt out sentences interpreting it for your audience – spelled correctly or not, using the right syntax, who cares? You are expressing your moment, and it’s perfect for what it is.
Should you try again with hopes you can do better? Absolutely. If you achieve your masterpiece, the best work you have ever done, should you stop playing? Of course not. The other night I visited friends with Al Rendon, and experienced the found piano syndrome again, albeit on a much finer scale. They had a full grand piano in the living room, and I had some Knob Creek and a couple of glasses of wine inside me. They asked me to play – I’m not all that good, I play a little blues, that’s all, but I was defenseless against the alcohol. It’s a great instrument; I played “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” better than I have ever played it. Tried it again at home the next night, and it was schlocky. But I love that song; I’ve played it since I was a teenager. I may never play it like I played it at Arturo and Daniel’s, but I’ll play it again.
Nothing is ever perfect. It is always possible we could play it “better” – more mathematically accurate, more natural, more expressively, whatever. It is equally possible that this performance, however flawed, is the apex, we may never get it right. But you know what?
It’s perfect, just like that. Every tune, every time, right on moment, oh yes.
garynote: Save the Date
The 36th Annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship is set for Saturday, May 18 in Austin at “Brush Square,” the backyard of the O. Henry and Dickinson Museums, 409 E. Fifth Street. I have been once and, despite some confidence in my ability, I was thoroughly intimidated. These people are fast, smart and good. If you are a San Antonio pun aficionado, please email me and let me know you are going to the match. I’m looking for an excuse to cover the event for Every Word Counts. Thanks.