Just the other day in the studio, long standing musical problems resolved themselves as if by magic.
I am hoping that you can use this idea for yourself when you find yourself up against the wall, with “unsolvable” problems on the guitar, music and life. 🙂
The Recording Studio is a Mirror
The most clear, productive, painful and cutting guitar teacher is “the recording studio.” It is a mirror. What you play is what you get – the good, the bad and the ugly!
You learn what sounds good, and why. And, the music’s weak spots become obvious to you as well.
Virtually all of todays recordings are “perfect.” Fixing mistakes is easy; we can re-record or use software to clean things up.
The biggest challenge for me though, is what to do the “feel” is off. Sometimes I perceive this long after the recording session is over.
What makes music touch the heart and sound soulful? Certainly more than technical “perfection” is needed to touch listener’s hearts.
I was “almost done recording” – 13 CD tracks were recorded & edited. I set up a playlist in iTunes so I could listen while on tour and see how it felt as a listener.
(It’s good to listen back several weeks after you record. When you listen back on the same day, you remember how you “felt while recording”, instead of hearing how it really sounds to a new listener with fresh ears.)
The Truth & Weak Spots Emerged Over Time
The solo arrangements of “Yesterday” and “In My Life” by the Beatles were technically correct, but the feel was missing.
There was no love, no magic, no spark and no “joyful essence” of the Beatles.
Technically perfect but spiritually off, like a student recital.
The inner critic started in with:
- I should be better!
- What must I do to make it better?
- I want to have a great version of this recorded!
- I want people to love my recording!
- I really did my best!
(Can we get some ‘pity party’ music as a soundtrack for this?)
Stepping back, I noticed how all of these feelings have the ever insistent egoic “I”. That’s the little “me” that wants to be special, be a victim, and be separate.
After seeing the ego loving the drama, I shifted to “how about the MUSIC being #1?”
The Mind Cannot Figure it Out
The guitar fingerings are practically the same each time, so the only place left to look was an intimate place within.
In order to descend into the heart and a zone deeper than thinking, here is what I did…
1) Handed it over to the Subconscious
No more trying to “figure it out.” I set the guitar down and played blues piano for 48 hours.
This way I’d be deep in music, but give the problem at hand a rest.
I abandoned the tight grip on “I have to do this, it has to be that.”
2) Focused on The Music Itself
I went back and listened to the original versions so I could “become” the music rather than
“play” the music.
Once you play an arrangement for a while, it’s easy to lose the original intent, so a refresher on tempo, lyrics, vocal inflection, and song essence is a good idea.
3) Meditated 30 minutes in the morning
Often I find myself away from “inner home.” Computers, smartphones and everyday life us all outward in 9000 directions.
Musical intimacy can only come when one rests “at home” in the heart.
4) Detached from Immidiate Results
I went back to the studio with as “let’s see what the music does today” attitude – not “I hope I can play this well today.”
If I did a recording for the garbage can, that was ok. I was willing to let it suck,
and stay in this intimate zone for as long as it took to get a decent version (weeks, months.)
The AHA Moments Came – by Themselves!
I could have never “figured these out” with the mind. These revelations came all by themselves.
- A little trill (F# G F#) in “Yesterday” made my soul light up. Somehow I left this out before. (vulerability)
- The tempo of “Yesterday” should faster than I thought. (attention to the music)
- A fat bass sound in “Yesterday” helped bring the groove across. (masculine/feminine yin/yang balance)
- Singing “Yesterday” with the lyrics, and reflecting on the story Paul sings. (heart)
- Singing the snappy feel of “I remember” in the first phrase “In My Life”. (essence)
- Listening to the melody of “In My Life” as I played helped naturally reduce the counter melody volume. (paying attention to what is)
- Singing the beat at tempo with a heavy groove set things up properly (boo boom bap!)
These shifts produced almost imperceptible changes, but when you do an A/B listening test of which versions sound better, the new takes win, hands down.
- From observing, listening and surrender came these “gifts” as “AHA” moments.
- Every revelation was devoid of the ever insistent little “I”.
- Abandon the ego, and music blooms once again like blossoms in Springtime.
Have You Ever Had AHA Moments Like This?
Please let me & the readers know about it in the comment box below!
Excellent post Adam!! I discovered something else about listening back to old sessions: one day, a recording sounds nice to me, and the next day, it sounds disappointing…it depends on how I feel at the moment!
Sometimes, I can record 10 times the session I want to upload, and finaly, I come back to the first one…it’s a long time process to know exactly witch feeling you want to transmit: so you’re absolutly right about being detached from Immidiate Results !!! No need to hurry…
Adam Rafferty says
Yes Mathieu, after 20 “Killing Me Softly” takes, I came back to take 4 or 5 for my CD. That was enough to be warmed up, and still have some “juice” in the playing ….always go nice & slow. Watch what comes, never force!
John Lind says
Excellent post Adam. I too have noticed that using the recording studio as a mirror is a great tool, particularly for those of us who no longer play live. But the ego is a huge problem for all of us. I have 4 ideas that work for me to add to your great ideas.
1) I recently listened to Martin Taylor teach a very challenging Count Basie song and he was talking about the accompaniment vs. the melody. I will never forget him saying “you would never hear Frank Sinatra sing it like that”. I now think of that line every time I feel the melody is getting lost in my muddy playing.
2) I find it frustrating that by the time I “really know” a song deep in my heart and fingers, I am often already tired of it. The most frustrating part is that I am actually at the perfect point to play a song with the most feeling, because I am no longer thinking about my playing as much. I find at this time, when muscle memory has taken over, I can go back and add more feeling and emotion in the song. I can also more easily punch up the melody a little more louder or distinctively. Suddenly, I can enjoy a song much more even though I thought I was tired of it.
3) I never say ‘I am learning to play this song”; rather I say “I am playing this song”. I tell all new guitar/music students the same thing … you are not learning to play the guitar; you are playing the guitar. This sends a infinitely better message to your subconscious.
4) I view my guitar playing as a lifelong spiritual practice. You don’t hear people say “man, my meditation was really bad today” because we were taught not to judge ourselves that way. Our meditation is just what it is; a lifelong practice! If I view my guitar through the same lens, I can more easily control my ego. I am not playing good or bad, I am just practicing my guitar. Suddenly, my playing sounds so much more alive. (now, if I could only get my ego and nerves to go away when the red light comes on the camera, I would have more certainty that this is actually working!)
John, yes on all counts. Answers / comments by number….
1) I continually come back to melody. Once we have the muscle emory we have to then come back to “how does it sound.” I actually am revising “FLy me to the Moon” – again 🙂
2) Once I now tunes, I get bored of hearing myself so it’s critical to breath new life into it (like Spring following WInter.) Sometimes I try different tempos, or throw a capo on to hear a new color….to break me out of “same old, same old.”
3) Yes 100%
4) Mike Longo always told me “don’t look for results” so yep, it’s like a mediation practice. I do look for results when I record, but in practice I just go in and take what comes.
Keep groovin John!
That’s really insightful Adam. Let’s hear the differences between the two versions please – that would indeed be a lesson!
First off I find your toughts and ideas very refreshing and supportive for my musical development.
Thanks for having the character and courtesy to share it with us, I really appreciate it.
I notice a lot of guitarists using a song only to show of their playing, or to emphasise the “guitar sound”,
theres but very few -like yourself and Tommy Emmanuel- who figured out to play a song for the songs sake.
In the end music is a universal language of the soul, it gives you the ability as a musician to plant a feeling into peoples chests.
There’s no point in throwing handsfull of complicated words in grammatically complicated constructions perfectly executed onto peoples foreheads -or on their eardrums for that matter- that make no sense.
Technique and ability are just -since they are hard to master:”just”- the tool to do the job.
With better technique you simply have more ability to express yourself.
Great songs can be technically simple -take a look at Bill Withers ain’t no sunshine, five chords and they say everything.
Because it is about the message not about the music.
Which makes the music work.
My hometown has a small jazz-university and the students get pretty good with their knowledge and abilities -as far as my judgement goes- but it strikes me every time they are having a funk-jamsession and it’s not once they can catch the groove. Not because the couldn’t do it but because -it seems to me- they get so carried away in their technique they loose track of the big picture.
In Austria we say: “they can’t see the wood because of all the trees.”
Sometimes I find my playing dull and try to analyze[which too helped me a lot] instead of feeling it.
Then I remind myself that music is not about beeing good, I’ts about telling a story.
And usually it sounds way better even if its not clean -maybe it’s also because its not clean that it gets character.
Just some toughts and observations on the topic.
Shane Hennessy says
Adam I love your blog, you are the most insightful and helpful musician I have ever come across and posts like this really get me fired up to work harder and to work smarter! Shane
Marcel Mokbel says
great post. Recently, I came across those problems, too. I think it is very difficult to get a good recording if you have to do it on a particular day. Sometimes you just can’t force those feelings you had when you wrote a song or when you played an arrangement in the most meaningful moment…
For me it worked best when I took the time and just played the song, trying to completely forget that I’m recording. So I left the mics on and just played on…when you are in a recording studio and are paying for it, this should be too expensive, unfortunately…
Playing with eyes closed helps me to feel what the song is all about an transport those feelings, so i try to do that even when I’m recording the song.
But all in all, I’m never really satisfied…but that’s how it goes I guess…and your article helps a lot 🙂
All the best
Your story reminds me of Ami Caldwell’s absolutely stunning performance of Without You on the Voice the other night. With the power and range of her superior voice, I’m sure she could have done Mariah Carey’s version better than Mariah. Fortunately, Miley Cyrus was her coach, and told her point blank that copying the author’s performance or the original recording was not worthy of her talent. Together they went back to the lyrics, and re-interpreted the feeling and emotion of Nilsson’s composition. They created a reading that was all Ami, and in the end was different from Harry or Mariah’s in almost every note, but captured the emotional power of the song. She made subtle changes in the melody, added inflection and intonation on key notes, overhauled the timing to extend the most powerful and impactful notes and better reflect the emotion of the piece. With the quality and power of her instrument, and a new imagining of the song, she utterly destroyed every other version of that piece. It gave me chills. And it was completely her own. If she had merely executed Mariah or Nilsson’s version better, it would have meant nothing. We can learn from the original artists, but we can never BE the originals, just a pale imitation. As it is, Ami now owns that song for all time, and she’s on her way to being a much bigger superstar than Mariah ever could be. Ami is supremely talented, and Miley is a genius (boy, I never thought I’d say those four words!).
You know your skills, and you know your talent. Go ahead and internalize the best readings of a piece, . Make them a part of your subconscious repertoire, then clear them from your conscious mind, whether it takes a week, a month, or a year. Then return to the source with fresh ears and interpret it in your own way. Let trusted friends help, but be true to yourself. Clear your mind of all interpretations and read it as though you were hearing it for the first time.
You’ll never impress yourself or your audience with an imitation of someone else’s good performance. Have the originality to make your performance great.
If you ever meet Ami Caldwell, please thank her and Miley for showing us all how it should be done.
john Coyne says
What a good article. My problem comes on stage when I am trying to play “perfect”. My hands start to shake and I am not in the moment but thinking about the next phrase…and then I hear the mistakes and the death spiral of making more because of it. EGO. When I just let go (sometimes improvising in the moment) the whole experience is better and I believe the audience likes it too. I have the technical skill but I get in my own way. I am going to use this advice this weekend when I am playing live.
I also notice that I am the only one who notices (except when I really go into the death spiral). No-one really knows how the arrangements are set up they just listen and putting them first will, I am sure change the “feel and experience” of being a listener. Good advice Adam.
denis clayton says
Thank you for all you do for musicians ans music students.You are an inspiration
I can not over emphasis how much you are appriciated.
Many thanks for your time and consideration
Excellent article. I enjoy all your writing, but I’ve never posted a comment; this article stands out and I have to. I can relate. I am recording some original tunes and really fighting with mics and strings and guitars and fingers . The tracks aren’t where I want them to be. I’m way too deep into technical aspects; as a result I lose the feeling.
I remember hearing an interview recently with a very successful cinematic director who tried to get everybody rehearsed and prepared and then get the performance on the first or second real take — because he says it rarely gets better, and those cases where you record take-after-take-after- take just start going downhill and lose all emotion and feeling.
You did a great job putting some pretty abstract thoughts into words, even though I have this feeling that the message (the difference in the new takes vs the old, the emphasis on the music instead of the ego, all the concepts you alluded to) was out there just beyond the words you wrote.
First of all i want to thank you very much Mr. Adam Rafferty sir for such a great tip. I am amazed that i was unknowingly following this!
By getting inspired from your arrangement of ‘Fly me to the moon’ i also wanted to play it. But since i am just starting out in fingerstyle, i wanted to create my own easy arrangement. It took me more than 1 month to creat a 2 and half minutes track. The reason was in every season i was accompanied by this ‘AHA’ moment. I would accidentally hit a note and would harmonize it with bass note that i would have never incorporated if i was strictly following diatonic harmony.
David Pike says
You are lucky! You’re at home in the moment. Stay there, and nothing can stop you.