Part of being a good musician is constantly striving to improve. I practice every day. Much of what I practice will never be heard in public: scales, arpeggios, patterns, and exercises that improve my dexterity and technique. My technique practice is similar to physical conditioning for an athlete. A basketball player spends a good deal of time conditioning his body handle the demands of his sport. He'll lift weights, stretch, run, do plyometrics, and run all sorts of drills without even touching a basketball. We only see him shooting baskets and defending, but all of his behind the scenes physical conditioning is essential to making him a good player. The same goes with playing the guitar. The consistent practice of scales and other exercises helps you improve your accuracy and speed over the course of time.
While practicing is the one and only way to improve your technical skills, there are some areas of musicianship that can only be learned through public performance, such as connecting with an audience or the pacing of your set. In public, even for background gigs, the music feels different. There is an energy in the air. There is background noise. The sound system settings that sounded great last night are totally wrong for the acoustics in another venue.
My originals band, Allen, Vinton, and Godfrey, has come out of a couple months' layoff and has been performing regularly this month. We've played well, but we've also learned something from every show. The latest lesson, learned publicly, is to be sensitive to the room you're playing. This weekend we played at the Hungry Ear Coffee House with mixed reaction. On the one hand, we received a standing ovation. On the other hand, some complained that the band was too loud, especially the drums.
My initial reaction was to be a little gruff. It was a challenging night for me. I'm the host and point man for the Hungry Ear, so not only was I responsible for performing in the second set, I also acted as emcee, supervised the volunteers, set up the sound system, and ran the sound for the first act. I was frazzled because I didn't get to warm up as much as I like, and because, as usual, there was someone giving me suggestions on how to run sound. (One thing I've learned as a fledgling sound man is that, without exception, there is ALWAYS someone who is willing to tell you how you should run the sound.)
So…I wasn't exactly in a good frame of mind to accept criticism after a busy night, especially with the adrenaline rush that comes with performing. Rather than speak my mind, I decided to bite my tongue and wait until I heard the recording before saying something I would later regret. For those of you who have seen me perform, you may have noticed that I've been recording my appearances. Part of this is so that I can post clips on YouTube for potential clients, but it's also a learning tool. If you want to know exactly what you look and sound like, there's nothing like the cold eye of the video camera.
I listened to our show the next day, and sure enough, the drums were overbalancing the band. Good thing I didn't snap at anyone the night of the show! We addressed the issue last night in rehearsal, and we'll be making adjustments as we always do. This weekend we're playing at Mighty Joe Espresso, which is a smaller room, so we'll be able to apply our Hungry Ear lesson at Mighty Joe and be more sensitive to the venue.
Every time you pick up the guitar to practice, there's a lesson to be learned. The same goes with presenting your music to an audience. Every show offers another lesson. It's all part of learning the craft, and many of those lessons are played out in public. You have the choice of gaining new insights or ignoring the lesson altogether. I choose to learn.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995 and have been music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation since 2011.