Less Perfect, More Live

May 06, 2021

Last weekend, Ms. Fretboard was winding up the troops about the world slowly opening back up again. "We're gonna be able to do this!" she was telling them. "And this! And maybe even..." Then she caught the expression on my face. "Kids," she said,"I think someone is not ready to leave the cave yet."

It's kind of true. And I've had this conversation with various friends of mine who, like me, are perfectly happy being left to their own devices, doing what they do. As one of them put it, "The pandemic has just made everyone else operate the way I already do." I did hit the wall pretty hard a few weeks ago as far as the isolation goes, but it took me more than a year to get there, and within a couple of days I was back in gear, hunkered down at the studio, making the stuff.

The quarantine, of course, somewhat coincided with my ramping up the time I spend teaching online. I feel extremely fortunate to have already had things up and running when the world shut down, but circumstances certainly encouraged me to lean in, as the modern phrase has it, to the whole experience. I've always found group experiences like classes and workshops more fun than individual lessons, so it's beyond ironic that an isolating event like the pandemic has resulted in my spending more time teaching to a group, albeit online, than ever before.

Like many people, my performing life took a mostly voluntary nosedive when I became a parent, and remained at a profoundly low altitude for a good four or five years. When I did start playing again, I would come home from sitting in or an actual gig and Ms. F. would ask "how'd it go?" And I would invariably reply, "It was really weird – people seemed to like it!" I would then have to explain the perplexing experience of having people come up afterwards and say nice things about how I played the guitar. "What's so weird about that?" she would ask. "Well..." I would reply slowly, like Bruce Willis' character in Bandits, "...I am a guitar player." And half my friends are guitar players, or so it seems, and of course they're generally good at various things I'm not particularly dialed into. So it never really seemed to me like there was anything all that noteworthy about being able to stand up there and hold a song or a groove or a solo together in a halfway respectable fashion. Fixing cars, now, that's amazing.

Eventually, I did get it through my skull that I know, somewhat, what I'm doing, but I thought of all this recently because I rounded up a small group of active participants in The Fingerstyle Five to start taking the pulse of my monthly membership, a handful of folks at a time. I've recently added a second live stream to the month's content, and it turns out that, at least for this first group of people, this was a very popular move. I love doing the live streaming – it's great fun knowing their are real people on the other end the camera, not just a hard drive, and seeing people's comments and answering their questions gives me a much better idea of what everyone really wants to know than just sort of guessing, and pushing out fixed videos based on those guesses.

But, like having no idea about my guitar playing, it never occurred to me the give and take of live streaming would be fun for other people, too. I made an assumption that people expected a certain degree of perfection only obtainable by shooting and editing the lessons in advance. Of course, I show up to the live streams prepared, with PDFs for the material we're going to cover and a game plan for how we're going to cover it. But as near as I can guess, it's not unlike the difference between a studio album and a live show. The live show is a little less polished, maybe a little more discursive, but it's also more immediate, more personal, more live. Who knew?

This month in the membership, we're taking the classic tune "Nine Pound Hammer" and putting it into dropped-D tuning. I'll teach a basic version of the tune and a more syncopated, embellished version, show how to work on the groove, and then I'll do two of these hour-long live streams – one on how to improvise on the song, one on how to develop those 16 bars into a complete 2-3 minute arrangement. I always post my own version of the song at the top of the month, just to show what it will sound like once you've put all that together. Since I encourage people not to wait for the perfect take to post their own work, I try and use my own first or second complete take for these demos if possible. If you want to check out what it sounds like, I've posted my version of "Nine Pound Hammer" to my Youtube channel, mistakes and all:

Nine Pound Hammer