Saturday, December 11, 2010

Control the Challenge

I played a couple of gigs recently. Last week it was a piano gig accompanying a singer. Then yesterday my loving spouse and I played Christmas songs at a local Christmas tree farm owned by some friends. I played guitar in that setting, while she covered clarinet.

I got some insight from those two very different experiences, and I want to pass it along, because I think this insight could be of value to all aspiring musicians.

The lesson is: control your challenge.

The fact is, all music can be played simply. It can also be played complex. You get to choose how you do it.

Case in point: At the Christmas tree farm gig I was reading out of a book of Christmas carols that I had just received a week or two earlier. Unlike the scope and presentation of my own book of Christmas Carols, The Season, this new volume is a fake book that was edited by some real jazz fiends. And I'll admit many of the songs were a real challenge to me in that form, even though I'd become very familiar and comfortable with the same exact songs with easier versions.

The main challenge lay with the fact that the chords were often advanced and unfamiliar, and the changes came at a furious pace. I had to use all my concentration and technique to keep up with it.

Now there was a third person who joined us for a few songs, a beginning clarinet student my wife teaches. She (the student) had only been playing clainet a few weeks and was at a very beginning level. But she struggled through, and played very well.

And then I realized I was kind of a beginner too. Even though I've played guitar for over 45 years, I was very much a beginner as far as this advanced book was concerned. I was just a beginner at a more advanced level.

The upshot? We gave it our best, revealed our flaws, and in general made a lot of people happy with our music. Luckily the gig was very informal, nobody got paid (well, we did get a free Christmas tree), and the environment was very forgiving.

Thus, we felt more relaxed and were more open to taking chances and exploring new things. A win win. Had the gig been more formal (like the piano gig a few days earlier) I would be less enthusiastic about pushing the envelope in public.

No matter what the occasion, be it a performance, or jamming with friends, or just playing by yourself, you can adjust your risk threshold accordingly. The more formal it is, the fewer risks you take. Control your challenge. But be sure to take the risks at home when you are just playing for the fun of it.

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