Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Donning my music overalls

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” — Thomas Edison
I recorded the guitar part first, using my new Taylor jumbo 12-string. I played once through on the melody of an Irish jig, then switched to rhythm, playing chords four times through. (Traditional dance tunes are short.) The third time on chords I used a bass run I had devised a few days earlier, a catchy hook that haunted my brain until bedtime the day I created it. After recording the guitar part I moved to mandolin for the main melody, but when I started the recorder I looked down and saw the strings were tarnished. Well, so much for a finished track today, I thought. I can’t release a tune with sound dampened by old strings, but I recorded it anyway just to see how the parts fit together.
When I played it back, I noticed that I was picking too hard on the mandolin. I spent years developing a light touch, and I dislike hearing a hard attack in my playing, so overpicking further made the track a bust. Next, I noticed that my catchy bass run clashed with part of the melody, and the guitar part was short of my standard of perfection.

I have a sound in my head, a professional sound that I want to record, and it’s disconcerting to hear a result that falls short of my imagined sound. It humbles me, and after recovering from the shock each time I record, I must gather my wits. Following that recovery I have a choice: give up and content myself with a life of musical mediocrity, never making the recording that I’ve stored in my head for more than two decades, the recording that is my calling, and listening to others’ recordings; or write a new arrangement and practice, practice, practice. Of course, the first option is not an option at all, so back to the arranging board and on to practicing.
Practicing is difficult. It’s work. And practicing when I have a full-time job is harder. It means sitting alone with my instruments rather than relaxing and reading with my feet on the ottoman. It’s something I thoroughly enjoy when I’m fresh but must push myself into when I’m tired. Depending on the amount of fatigue, I either mentally revive while practicing or I continue to feel tired. I can still accomplish something when I’m tired, whether it’s learning a new fingering, gaining a better understanding of a tune, simply going through the movements that keep my hands and arms trained, or at the least finding the inspiration to continue the next day. At times the fatigue overwhelms all efforts and it is best to quit, because a bad practice discourages me and creates negative associations with the music. I always give it a few minutes before I know if I am simply too tired or if the music will carry me past the fatigue. Sometimes a short rest is all I need, and I return to the music. Other times, it’s time for a book or a movie. I never try to record when I’m tired.
Recording a multi-track solo album requires much more time and practice than playing with a group because I’m playing all the parts. When I play with other musicians, each of us must play our part and play in time and tune with the others. When I recorded with three friends in 1993, we had a engineer do all the technical work, and I had only my parts, mainly rhythm guitar, to worry about. We practiced alone and on occasion as a group, having a matter of geography to contend with, for a few months before visiting the studio but laid down all the main parts in two days in October. But because I am the sound engineer, producer, arranger, mandolinist, guitarist and mountain dulcimer player for my solo album, two days for an entire album would be impossible. My long-term goal is to release a CD, but I’ve considered releasing a couple preliminary tracks through digital media just to get a little finished product heard. But first I must have some finished product. Back to the practicing ...

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